When ‘facts’ conflict, you know someone is pulling your chain

Staff Writer
Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

We’re on information overload, even on those rare “slow news” days. My wife reads a blogger who opened her daily report earlier this week with this: “If you’re tired of so much happening in the world, it’s a good day to skip this. There’s nothing new here you need to know.”

I’m in favor of taking a breather, but that was posted before 10 a.m., so we had plenty of time left in the day for conditions to deteriorate.

With so much material to consume and understand out there, it’s little wonder that people gravitate to familiar, comfortable sources — especially when choosing television channels and internet websites. Too often, a “comfortable” source is one with a slant on the world with which we agree.

In unsettled times, comfort is something we all seek. Yet, comfort can be quite elusive when people are worried about their jobs, their health, and most recently protests over unequal application of rights protecting justice and liberty. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have preconceptions challenged.

After selecting and aggregating information, people usually choose sides. Each of us decides what information we will accept or reject, what we will do with it, and what risks we might take if a response is warranted.

With today’s data overload, it has become increasingly difficult to separate unbiased news reports from self-serving misinformation — not to mention slick propaganda pieces created by anonymous “bad actors” interested only in sowing dissent for political or financial gain. If people become so intrenched that they refuse to consider facts and opinions that don’t conform to their established view, compromise — much less reasonable solutions — becomes impossible.

Police Sergeant Joe Friday, the detective played by Jack Webb on the radio-television-movie franchise series “Dragnet,” became famous for the catchphrase, “Just the facts, ma’am,” even though I challenge you to find a clip of him saying that. He frequently said something similar, but never those exact words, according to many people with even more time on their hands than I do.

Regardless, honestly is still the best policy.

Reliable information is vital when basic facts are disputed. Seemingly reliable sources sometimes provide contradictory information confirming what we suspect, or what we are eager to believe, the truth is. One of my teachers in high school told us the world is filled with people who go through life thinking, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Decades later, little has changed, but now we can’t agree on what the facts are.

After a career in the newspaper industry, I tend to give news messengers — especially most who are in the print media — benefit of the doubt. I know how journalists are trained. I know the standard to which they strive. But obviously, some have strayed from that training in the pursuit of fame and success, building their careers not on facts, but on opinions based on partial truths.

It’s nothing new. In the late 19th century, during the age of “yellow journalism,” newspapers were established not so much to cover news, but to promote specific philosophies.

In Brownwood during that time, maybe a dozen newspapers existed for that precise purpose. A similar situation exists today, with websites being created to espouse the owners’ particular political views. The major difference? Yellow journalists had limited readership and didn’t pretend to deal in facts. Today, websites look legitimate and enjoy worldwide readership.

At times during the 20th century, Americans trusted the messengers because their agenda was providing accurate information. Today, just as in the late-1800s, the buyer must be beware if the goal is valid information rather than propaganda. Look for products that offer multiple sides and attribution. Avoid sources that offer simple solutions to complex issues or aren’t willing to issue corrections.

Even when reading sources and reporters you trust, read with skepticism. That’s not necessarily a condemnation of the reporting, because newsmakers they quote have been known to throw up smokescreens.

It’s especially important during an election year, when misinformation blossoms on every side.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at tgifcolumn@yahoo.com.