September 20, 2019

A journalistic call to arms

Everyone lies.

It’s one of those curses of being human. But even though we lie, to ourselves and to others, we often hold our leaders to a higher standard. Unfortunately, they lie too.

We’ve had a succession of presidents over the past two decades who have all lied to the American public — some a little, others a lot. Bill Clinton lied about his many sexcapades; George W. Bush about those weapons of mass destruction we never found; Obama promised “you can keep your doctor” and that the Syrian war had a red line. If you crave more examples, you can visit — they’ve listed loads of ’em.

It’s a tough business, politics. It requires the sale of ideas in order to amass votes, pass legislation and garner approval ratings — so, go figure. Anything to make a sale. But perhaps no other presidential figure in my lifetime has lied as frequently, unabashedly and unapologetically as Donald Trump. According to politifact, roughly 70 percent of his statements are either “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire,” compared with Obama, whose falsehoods weigh in at 26 percent.

Between the current administration’s obfuscation with “alternative facts” and the phenomenon of “fake news,” this cauldron of lies is boiling over like never before, and it threatens to undermine the fabric of our democracy. Good journalism has never been more challenged — or more necessary.

In my interview with Leon Wieseltier that appears in this issue, he describes the value of “opinion formation” as essential to the health of a society. “Public opinion will only be as good as its sources of information,” Wieseltier said, “[and] there is nothing more important in a democracy than our message of opinion formation. Journalism plays a central role in that.”

I’ve thought a great deal about the idea of “opinion formation” and how powerful it is in shaping our values, our politics, our worldviews. What happens to the dignity of our opinions when sources of information are not only dizzying in volume and range, but increasingly untethered to facts? What happens when official power structures — such as the White House — present “alternative facts” as a form of truth? And erode the public trust in norms for truth-telling by portraying the media as “dishonest” and “crooked”?

I put the question to Wieseltier, who seemed a bit disgruntled with my phrasing, that, “in today’s environment, it seems very few people know what facts are.”

“Hold on, hold on,” he said, cutting me off. “Lots of people know what facts are. In fact, I daresay most of the people who make up facts know they’re making up facts, because they are trying to deceive and delude the population. This used to known as propaganda.”

The insidious upshot of propaganda was made clear in a recent interview Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg conducted with Imam Abdullah Antepli at a recent interfaith conference hosted by the Shalom Hartman Institute in New York. Antepli is the founding director of Duke University’s Center for Muslim Life and co-director, with Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) in Jerusalem.

In a wide-ranging and fascinating interview that is well worth listening to, Antepli described how he was indoctrinated into hating Jews by consuming propaganda. He referred to himself, only half jokingly, as a “recovering anti-Semite.”

“I grew up in Turkey, not religious, but in an extremely nationalist, chauvinist, anti-Semitic environment,” he said. Anti-Semitic literature such as “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” “really made me think Jews as people, and Judaism as a religion, [was] irredeemably evil. I spent good chunk of my mid-teenage years burning Israeli flags.”

Talk about the power of opinion formation.

“I was victim of a certain narrative,” Antepli confessed, “a convoluted, increasingly religious language of dehumanizing Jews, Judaism, Israel and Zionism.”

Today, however, Antepli is a leader in facilitating Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States and Israel, where he spends a month each year. Transformed by deep study of Islam and discovering shared values with Jews, he is now quick to condemn those who do not support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state as “anti-Semitic.” He is also against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

When Goldberg asked him why such pernicious hatreds as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia persist, Antepli was clear:

“We have been feeding ourselves with so much unhealthy information — unhealthy, un-nuanced, sensationalist, reductionist, simplistic, black-and-white information.” He decried the practice in the Jewish community and the Muslim community of trotting out the other community’s religious defectors, who reinforce each group’s negative image of the other. “Why are we investing in each other’s renegades?” he asked.

Whether in our religious communities or in our politics, we would do well to remind ourselves that the pursuit of truth not only can change lives — but save them. Cultivating informed opinions based in verifiable facts can make the difference between war and peace; love and hate; democracy and totalitarianism.

Donald Trump is correct in that the media don’t always get it right. So here’s to recommitting ourselves to the next 30 years of ruthless, relentless, fact-based, objective Jewish journalism. For all of our sakes, I hope that under Trump’s administration we do the best job we’ve ever done.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.