A Reply to Pilate

(Who was uncertain about truth)


Karen Radford Treanor 

 

Copyright 2020  by Karen Radford Treanor



Painting of Jesus before Pilate.
 
It may be a measure of how dire things have become when I admit I hesitated to offer my two cents’ worth on the following topic for fear of being hounded and excoriated by the Rabid Right or Loony Left. 
 
Then I smacked myself upside the head with a copy of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” and decided to woman-up and give it a go.
 
I have been a writer all my working life, in one form or another.   None of it has been Pulitzer-winning, but it has all been as grammatically and syntactically correct as a former student of Mrs. Gladys Macpherson could make it, and as true as available facts allowed.
 
I have worked on three weekly newspapers and three monthly magazines; worked in curriculum development for English; worked in advertising; done a fair bit of public speaking; and worked for a state MP, researching problems and writing media releases, news stories and speeches.   I am presently the semi-retired proprietor of a small publishing company.  This background probably places me as an outrider in the formerly healthy herd of journalists.  (I’ve chased a few fire trucks, but more likely could be found writing a feature about the last spotty dog to ride on Ol’ Ladder No. 4.)
 
In all the years I have been reading and writing I have not seen such a level of animosity as that which presently seems to be circulating in the air like toxic pollen.  There are a number of people who apparently live for the chance to slag off anyone expressing an opinion or comment with which they disagree.  Few now would defend to the death other people’s rights to differing opinions, it seems.
 
(Sidebar: You can see the declining quality of education in the mean-minded, often ill-punctuated and badly constructed comments in reply to any article in print, online or floating in the air waves.  Clearly there are few schools still able to afford good English teachers, and it appears that teachers of logic and rhetoric have gone the way of the Muttaburrasaurus. ) 
 
There is much bad, sloppy and lazy reporting passing for news.   I hesitate to use the phrase ‘fake news’, given the twisted way it is used by some, but often that’s just what it is.  There is also a regrettable tendency by some news commentators to add colour to facts, rather than just reporting something—why do they say someone has back-flipped or flip-flopped when that person has changed his or her mind about a policy?  Surely we should applaud someone who, upon receiving new information or after longer consideration, announces that she is withdrawing her previous decision or comment or policy in favour of one that is more appropriate to the changed circumstance? Or is it only people we like or with whom we agree that we can be generous in describing?  “I am determined; you are pig-headed; he is a stubborn S-o-B.”
 
Perhaps we should be grateful there is any news at all—given the amount of infotainment (great neologism!) that fills the day, finding any hard news is like discovering a piece of real chicken in a commercial pie.  Each week I run through the Sunday newspaper’s TV guide with a highlighter pen, so that we don’t miss any shows that we particularly want to see.  Whereas at one time there might be two or three shows contending for our attention at 8.30 or 9 pm, now there are often none at all.   Most of the science-based shows, behind-the-news stories, and the natural history shows have gone.  Only a handful of clever comedy and satire shows survive.  If it were not for Australia’s ABC and public broadcasters like PBS, we'd probably be using our television screen as a blackboard to remind ourselves to get cat food or wine.  Fortunately we have a large home library--which is getting more tattered by the year.
 
It has been suggested that citizen journalists may go some way towards filling the vacuum left by journalistic shoe leather on the streets.  This may be true, but a few hundred people following a face book page or blog do not replace the hundreds of thousands of people who once avidly read the large daily newspapers.   Julie Upham distilling the police blotter for the Everett Times every week did a useful service, calling to our attention a rise in housebreaking, or a missing grandfather, or a theft from the local charity shop.  Susie Bloggs's sharing of questionable ‘science’ stories or sharing of outright falsities does no good for anyone.
 
Finding the news these days is as complex an operation as shopping for food that hasn’t been filled with some substance you don’t wish to consume.  Much more of my life is now taken up with pursuing the real story of something I’ve heard about; just as my shopping trips are filled with much reading of 2 point type on the backs of packages.  A good proportion of my on-line time is spent tracking down the origin of something a well-meaning person has shared as truth and countering it with a citation of fact.   Finding an article that blames autism on fluoride in the water without a skerrick of scientific evidence, or one that tells me kale will cure cancer makes me as itchy as running across a badly written and misleading sentence.
 
What can we do to counter fake news, false science, and mean-minded editorialising?  Call it out when you see it, offer real evidence to refute fakery, and block rubbish from your news feed.  You may lose some friends, which is a very sad possibility in these strange times.  Pointing out a fact that is opposed to something a friend holds to be truth will not often get you any thanks, and is more likely to cause the friend to react as if you had personally attacked him rather than his incorrect belief.   Someone has probably studied this phenomenon and written a learned paper about it.  “I believed that typhoid vaccine caused my cousin’s baby to have a cleft palate and you have attacked my belief and snowed me with scientific data and taken away my certainty about why this happened to that baby—I hate you”
 
Above all, be aware of the “argument from incredulity”.  Just because you do—or don’t—believe something to be true does not mean that it is—or isn’t—true.  “I can’t believe any President of Bloggistan would say a thing like that!”  Perhaps you can’t believe it, but when forty-seven journalists, five hundred and three audience members and four national media networks have all reported it, you may have to reassess your belief.   What is difficult to believe is that so many people when presented with facts will persist in disbelief.
 
What to do?  Clearly there’s a sizeable group of people who don’t wish to be offered eye-witness accounts by an astronomer when they are firmly attached to the prognostications of their favourite astrologer.  These people, like sleeping tiger snakes, are better left unprodded. 
 
For the rest of us, let us be wary of opinions that are not underpinned by evidence, and let us never share any information we aren’t reasonably certain is true.  There are still some upright and straightforward journalists, in print and on the air.  There are a number of reliable websites for just about anything from disease to climate to cookery to cultural practices of the Tlingit.  Let us consult these sources, especially when we are offered new information that seems a bit unlikely.  (You didn’t really think that an elephant would carry a thirsty lion cub to the water hole while its mother paced unconcernedly alongside, did you?) 
 
And let us support the independent media organisations which over time have proved their commitment to truth.


This was recently published in the on-line “Swan Magazine”, which in its former iteration as a printed monthly employed me part-time writing up interviews with local worthies, book reviews, doing real estate write-ups (I was noted for being able to find something good about the most modest property!) and selling advertising.  It was not a hugely remunerative job, but gave me a lot of experience and flexibility.  The proprietor was—and is—a man of culture and education who manages to balance the public interest with the realities of funding any publication these days


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