The Common Good

Truth: Who Needs It?

NEW YORK — The view out my eighth-story apartment window rarely changes.

Lights go off and on, and occasionally a child across the way retrieves clothing from the balcony. Otherwise, buildings remain planted. So does New Jersey, across the Hudson River.

If I want to see more, I must go in search of it. As a child, I retrieved The Indianapolis Star from our front porch and read it cover to cover before anyone else woke up. In college, I devoured The New York Times every morning.

Nowadays, in my start-the-day routine, I scan headlines on the Internet, read a dozen articles on The Times website, and peruse a dozen blogs on technology and politics. Only when it's time for breakfast do I open the front door, retrieve the iconic "Gray Lady" and set to work on its contents.

I'm not sure why I continue to read the physical newspaper — it's all available online, minus the ads. Maybe it's an old habit of holding the world in my hands.

It never occurs to me to watch the news on television. I want to be informed, not entertained.

Later in the day, I consult online magazines for interesting pieces from The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, and other sources. Now and then, Facebook feeds me news that's untainted by polemics. Comments on LinkedIn discussion sites show glimpses of the human spirit.

I don't think of myself as a news-reading star; many spend far more time than I do staying informed. But I do recognize that being informed takes effort. As more and more cities lose their newspapers, and as networks like Fox abandon any pretense of journalistic integrity and simply broadcast misinformation, the work of staying informed gets more complicated.

I occasionally read broadsides from Tea Party folks and wonder what alternate universe they inhabit. Their positions seem unhinged from fact, history, and generally accepted reality. I imagine they'd say that a world informed by "liberal media" like The Times isn't any closer to being fact-based.

How do we debate important issues when we don't share a common foundation of facts? Dueling opinions are the heartbeat of politics. Dueling facts, however, lead mainly to shouting, bullying and mistrust.

Is gun violence up or down? Do more or fewer people have health insurance? Did the unemployment rate rise, plateau or fall? Is the economy improving or deteriorating? Is climate change real or fictional? Do the wealthy pay their share of taxes or not?

Our elections turn, in part, on such matters. By obfuscating the numbers, or deliberately planting disinformation claiming to be fact, we make it difficult to have an informed electorate. Instead, we get an emotional electorate, guided especially by fear and loathing. Shaping those emotions is the reason why billionaires are bankrolling the most disturbing flood of demagogic advertising I have seen.

Instead of reasoned debate among people who, while disagreeing, all seek the common good, we have a toxic spew of ads aimed at nothing more than instilling fear and hatred. Such willful destruction of the public square is despicable, and now it has become normal.

American democracy can endure arguments, civil wars and labor-management strife. But I worry whether it can withstand epidemic dishonesty.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.

Stack of newspapers photo, kret87 / Shutterstock.com

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