December 11, 2018

Letters to the Editor: Fake News, #MeToo, Table for Five, Larry Greenfield and Ruth Ziegler

Truth, ‘Fake News’ and American Politics

Regarding the Journal’s cover story “Can Truth Survive?” (Feb. 9): Reporter Shmuel Rosner probably doesn’t believe it can. His story is devoted mostly to a critique of a Rand Corp. study called “Truth Decay.” I confess I have not read the study and therefore am unable to comment on it.

Rosner recounts many of President Donald Trump’s falsehoods, the intentional conflation of opinion with fact, the tedium of cable news and even the cost of the decay of truth. It wasn’t until the end of his story that he disclosed his opinion: that truth decay “stems not just from the evil doers but also from the do-gooders who drown us in so much information that we no longer know what’s true and what’s not.”

Is he kidding? Because if he is serious, he believes that we do not have the ability to understand, to judge, to evaluate, to choose, to be capable of rational thought, or simply that we are just too lazy and don’t care. For our collective sake, I hope he is dead wrong.

Louis Lipofsky via email

Shmuel Rosner laments the decay of truth and writes, “Trump is a result of this trend as much as its instigator.” But Rosner doesn’t state the obvious: Republicans voted this compulsive liar into office and Republicans have long had an enormous problem with truth.

Why do so many Republicans believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, that he was born in Kenya, that global warming is a hoax, that there is widespread voter fraud, that the Russia investigation is a hoax? Because too many of them self-censor and listen only to conservative media like Fox News and conservative talk radio, so they are easily duped.

And why do they self-censor? Because they have bought into the argument that the mainstream media are biased. Yes, the mainstream media have a liberal bias. But it doesn’t invent outright lies like the ones listed above.

Trump doesn’t care about the truth because he knows his supporters don’t care about the truth. That’s why he calls everything “fake news” and gets away with it.

Michael Asher via email


Hysteria, Obscurity and the #MeToo Movement

Having just read Danielle Berrin’s column on male hysteria (“Male Hysteria,” Feb. 9), I’m now even more convinced of the female hysteria of the #MeToo movement, a movement that will quickly be hoisted by its own petard.

She claims that a few of these powerful and predatory men have actually been charged with a crime. I haven’t heard of any of these powerful men being charged with a crime, notwithstanding the fact that being charged with a crime is not the same as being found guilty of a crime.

Berrin complained that far too many female artists live and continue to live in obscurity. This might be true, but there are undoubtedly far too many talented male artists who also continue to live in obscurity.

Giuseppe Mirelli, Los Angeles


Table for Five Is Weekly Food for Thought

In your “Table for Five” section for Parashat Mishpatim (Feb. 9), Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, of Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice, argues for “the ethical imperative to protect and secure the needs of the stranger,” and “make the marginalized — rather than the elite  — our priority.”

I am a Conservative convert to Judaism, having embraced Judaism more than 50 years ago. I am a dues-paying member at an Orthodox synagogue near my home, where I go daily to minyan. I am also a member of four other non-Orthodox synagogues, where I regularly go and lead services in Hebrew, and am a cantor at one during the High Holy Days. While I can fully participate in those other synagogues, I am not permitted to get an aliyah to the Torah or be counted for a minyan at the Orthodox one. If I were to go to Israel, I could not be married there or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Non-Orthodox convert women also know that their children will not be counted as Jews in parts of the Jewish world. Yet Jews born of a Jewish mother are considered fully Jewish even if they repudiate their Judaism, castigate it and couldn’t care less about being counted for a minyan or getting an aliyah.

Our people were made to feel like invisible outsiders when we were slaves in Egypt. Why should those of us who turned our lives around to incorporate Judaism into it now be made to feel like we are invisible outsiders in some Jewish circles? I call on Rabbi Yanklowitz and his fellow Orthodox of conscience and morality to work to change what I feel is an unjust standard, so that those of us who have transformed our lives to embrace the Jewish people and God’s Torah are not made to feel like marginalized strangers within the Jewish world.

Peter Robinson, Woodland Hills

I was delighted at Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s teaching on the Torah portion in your Tu B’Shevat issue (“Table for Five: B’Shalach,” Jan. 26). He admonished the Israelis for their sarcasm. Indeed, rightfully so; such humor can be a sign of contempt.

Irony or sarcasm is indeed biting. Hurt people hurt people. The conclusion of Rabbi Finley’s commentary made the greatest impression: Because you have been done wrong does not give you license to do someone else wrong.

Thanks to your wonderful newspaper and your knowledgeable contributors and staff.

Daniel Kirwan via email


Remembering Ruth Ziegler, a True Community Supporter

We join the Jewish community in mourning the loss of Ruth Ziegler, a dear friend, supporter and member of Jews for Judaism’s board of governors (“Philanthropist Ruth Ziegler, 98,” Feb. 9).

For two decades, Ziegler supported our innovative educational services. After being honored at our 2005 gala, she funded a major endowment to ensure that Jews for Judaism’s life-saving counseling services would be available in perpetuity.

When I asked Ziegler what motivated her to make such a generous gift, she responded, “At the gala, I heard a mother share her pain after losing her daughter to another religion, and how you rescued her. I want to make sure no one else experiences that pain.”

Ziegler believed in saving a Jewish life and saving the world. Jews for Judaism is honored to play a role in perpetuating her legacy.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder and executive director of Jews for Judaism, International


Polish Law Demonstrates Dangers of Altering History

When any government, including Poland, attempts to whitewash its history, it usually ends up with paint stains on its hands (editorial cartoon, Feb. 9). Although we can’t compare the two, Americans should not be so quick to condemn others for their behavior without first checking our history. This month it will be 76 years since Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his executive order to intern Japanese-Americans after the U.S. entered World War II. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court avoided answering whether these people’s constitutional rights were violated.

Barry Bereskin via email


Write, Larry Greenfield, Keep on Writing

I love reading Larry Greenfield’s work. If I was not married happily, I would want to marry his brain! Keep his writing coming!

Allyson Rowen Taylor, Valley Glen


Letter to the Editor Overlooks Certain Facts

In last week’s letter from Reuben Gordon, he completely misunderstood the media coverage regarding President Donald Trump’s comment that there were good people on both sides of the Charlottesville, Va., march. Gordon states that it was in regard to the Confederate monument debate and that there were good people in support of keeping Confederate statues. The people he is referring to were Neo-Nazis; there are no good people on that side and I guess Gordon did not hear or did not want to hear their continual shouts of “Jews will not replace us.”

Edward A. Sussman, Fountain Valley

Reuben Gordon’s letter supporting President Donald Trump just because Trump supports Israel is a sad example of tunnel vision. Trump is an aggressive, ignoramus racist who is in the process of inflicting severe harm on Americans (Jews included), … so to excuse his arrogant, narcissistic self because of his support of Israel is foolish and perhaps even dangerous.

Rick Edelstein via email


He Asked and He Received a Small Change in Journal

When I ran into my friend David Suissa a couple of months ago while strolling down Pico Boulevard, I congratulated him on his new position at the Jewish Journal and the upgraded look of the paper. I then told him that Rhina, my elderly parents’ non-Jewish caregiver, noticed that the time Shabbat ends was no longer listed. As their caregiver, she needs to know when Shabbat concludes, and she wants to consult the Jewish Journal for that information. Suissa promised to correct it. Sure enough, in the next week’s edition, the time of Havdalah was once again listed! So thank you, David, for magnificently upgrading the paper, and on behalf of Jews and non-Jews who care when Shabbat ends, thanks for the weekly notice! Keep on publishing a great newspaper. Kol ha-kavod!

Mark Goldenberg, Beverly Hills


CORRECTIONS

The Feb. 9 edition of Moving and Shaking misreported the venue for the L.A. Jewish Home’s Celebration of Life: Reflections 2018 gala. The event took place at the Beverly Wilshire hotel.

In a Feb. 2 Calendar item, visiting scholar Andrew Porwancher was misidentified.

TRUTH DECAY: Should you believe a study that documents the fast erosion of Americans’ belief in documented studies?

There is an irony inherent to a scholarly attempt to convince you that we live in an era of “Truth Decay.” The phrase is the catchy title of a new Rand Corp. study that delves into “an initial exploration of the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life.”

The paradox is that the thesis — that we no longer trust facts — undermines the means — a study built on facts.

If this, as the study suggests, is an era in which “Americans are placing less faith in institutions that were once trusted sources of information,” then why would the same Americans trust the Rand Corp. and its findings?

If this is, as the authors argue, an era in which there is “increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data,” then why would they expect the readers to accept their interpretations of facts and data?

The authors, Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, clearly do have such expectations, maybe because they understand that there is no alternative to data and analysis. They also acknowledge that, alongside this decay, there is a tendency “in many areas of American society” to rely on “facts and data” today more than ever.

In other words, this is a time of both fake news and big data. It is a time of growing reliance on populist punditry “and opinion-based news,” but also a time in which “even baseball, football, and basketball teams increasingly rely on data to determine which players to draft.”

So, is Truth Decay just a polite way to describe the era of Donald Trump, whose long list of misstatements includes repeating more than 50 times the falsehood that his tax cut was the biggest ever (even after Treasury Department data showed it ranked eighth)?

It is and it isn’t. Complaints about the weakening of truth in public life intensified with the rise of Trump, and are clearly linked to it. But Trump is a result of this trend as much as its instigator.

There is hardly a shortage of articles lamenting the end of a supposed era of truth. Roger Cohen, writing in The New York Times two years ago, dated the beginning of this era to 2014, and to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin, he wrote, “a pure Soviet product, traffics in lies.” Putin was there before Trump, so “Trump is not alone. There is a global movement of minds,” Cohen wrote.

And Cohen was not alone. Last March, the cover of Time magazine presented the question “Is Truth Dead?” At about the same time, the magazine Democracy held a symposium to consider the question: “Can truth survive Trump?” No wonder that just last week, a political fact-checking website crashed during Trump’s State of the Union address.

The scholars of the Rand Corp. are clearly worried. It is hard not to agree with them that “Truth Decay and its many manifestations pose a direct threat to democracy and have real costs and consequences — economic, political, and diplomatic.”

In analyzing this situation, they identify four trends that together contribute to this time of decay: increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; the increasing relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

Trump is a result of this trend as much as its instigator.

Some of these trends hardly need to be proven. A brief glance at the polls reveals the public’s growing distrust in institutions. And just watch cable news for a few hours and you’ll see how much time is filled with conversations that blur the line between opinion and fact.

Of course, this trend of mistrust in the media and nonstop punditry did not begin with Trump. Rather, it made Trump a credible presidential candidate. And now it haunts him. He is both an instigator and a victim of American’s distrust.

Other trends are more difficult to pinpoint. But the authors still make a decent effort to prove their case — by showing, for example, “the recent rise in skepticism about the safety of vaccines.”

The vaccine case reminded me of “The Influential Mind,” a book published in 2017 by Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience. (Full disclosure: I was the editor overseeing the Hebrew edition.) Sharot describes the September 2015 Republican presidential primary debate in which the moderator challenged then-candidate Trump’s assertions — contrary to scientific evidence — that childhood vaccines were linked to autism.

Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who was then a candidate (now Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development), replied that numerous studies “have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism.”

Not hesitating to respond, Trump asserted that, “Autism has become an epidemic … it has gotten totally out of control. … You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child.” He went on to describe a colleague’s young child who became ill after being vaccinated, and, he alleged, “now is autistic.”

Sharot writes about this moment with a sense of awe. “My response was immediate and visceral. An image of a nurse inserting a horse-sized syringe into my tiny baby emerged inside my head and would not fade away. It did not matter that I knew perfectly well that the syringe used for immunization was a normal size — I panicked.”

She recounts this moment to make a point she illustrates time and again in her book: Evidence does not work. In fact, as she later explains, “presenting people with information that contradicts their opinion can cause them to come up with altogether new counterarguments that further strengthen their original view.”

Sharot is not listed as a source in “Truth Decay,” but her sobering argument should serve as a warning. The Rand scholars portray our current era as different from previous times: Once, we were more prone to listen to evidence; now, we are less prone to do this. But is that really true? Were people really more rational in the past, making decisions based on evidence more than we do today?

The authors do not argue that today’s trend is unprecedented. In a chapter on past Truth Decays, they count three earlier periods in which truth diminished to make room for non-truths: the 1880s-90s, the 1920s-30s, and the 1960s-70s. Their aim is to provide these parallels to help explain what we see today.

In all three examples, the authors note, the media were changing. Yellow Journalism thrived in the Gilded Age; radio and tabloids emerged in the ’20s and ’30s; and New Journalism and the era of television were hallmarks of the ’60s and ’70s. As they compare these three periods to today’s supposed Truth Decay period, they carefully conclude: “Perhaps the clearest similarity across the four periods is that each offers examples of the erosion of the line between opinion and fact and of ways in which the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion over fact seems to have increased.”

And yet, historical parallels are a tricky tool, and the authors readily admit that “although each of the periods … exhibited a significant rise in disagreement over social, economic, and political policies and norms, there is little evidence that agreement about the veracity and legitimacy of basic facts declined in previous eras.”

What are “basic facts”? Americans, by and large, agree that the earth is spherical, that the sun rises in the east, and that water boils at a certain temperature. They disagree — and this is nothing new — on evolution, on global warming, on UFOs. In 2008, not all of them were convinced that Barack Obama was an American citizen. That was years before Trump’s election, and before Russia’s invasion of the Crimea.

Watch cable news for a few hours and you’ll see how much time is filled with conversations that blur the line between opinion and fact.

Today, they can’t agree on the facts — or “facts” — detailed in the memo released last week by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). Was the FBI trying to assist Hillary Clinton? Was it trying to sabotage the election of Trump? The memo contains some facts that are indisputable and some that mean little without context. The context is often what makes facts more elusive than the Rand report tends to admit.

In analyzing the factors behind Truth Decay, the authors, to their credit, attempt to put these causes on a scale of those having more and less impact on how people debate truth and facts. Their conclusion: It is Facebook, Twitter and the other social media phenomena that make us easy prey for falsehoods: “Changes in the information system play an outsize role in the challenges presented by Truth Decay because those changes affect the supply of both fact-based information and disinformation.”

It’s not an earth-shattering conclusion, but it is an interesting comment on the human condition and on the human ability to process information.

Yes, our leaders tend to lie from time to time — some more than others. Yes, the current leader of the United States is especially flexible with the facts and especially bold in making unfounded statements. This boldness, it is worth saying, occasionally also gives him the ability to cut through vagueness and expose simple truths.

But leaving Trump aside for a moment, and reading carefully through the long Rand study, one realizes that Truth Decay — if you accept this analysis, and look at the historical parallels — is as much about too much information as too little. In other words, it stems not just from evildoers who deliberately hide the truth from us, but also from do-gooders who drown us in so much information that we no longer know what’s true and what’s not.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.