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The Difficult Business of Assessing What’s True

April 22, 2014

[T]he battle over truth and over perception—what is true and what needs to be taken into account given its objective reality—are central to any attempts at social change. – Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 354

I get a lot of insight into what kind of questions are on people’s minds through my teaching. My students’ questions, especially when they are encouraged to express them, are an excellent guide to what is useful for me to write and speak about. This week a major question that we discussed was how someone can figure out what’s true, given all of the competing claims in media and on the web. Not only is this important for individuals but it is even more important for the society since the vast majority of people would not know how to begin to determine the truth. Most people don’t even currently know that they are being constantly lied to by their government and that the mass media are concealing and distorting the truth so they don’t know that they need to dig deeper. To a) even know that you need to be skeptical and then b) to know how to weigh competing claims requires rigorous training. Many of those who graduate from college and even post-graduate education know ‘a’ but how many of them can handle ‘b’?

In my senior seminar, students are learning about how distorted the news media’s coverage is. Only six major corporations now control 90% of what we see, read, and hear. Go back a couple of decades and the number of major media owners was in the scores. Many did not know before learning about this just how concentrated the ownership pattern is and how the profit motive impacts what we are told, how these issues are framed, and what we are not told.

They are also going to be learning much more about how ideological and political matters intersect with the profit motive: how it is not simply the pursuit of more revenue that is in play here but also the preservation of and justification for the capitalist-imperialist system. Making money, in other words, is not the sole goal because if it were, many TV shows and personalities such as Phil Donahue and Keith Olbermann would still be on the air since they drew huge audiences when their shows were cancelled.

Donahue’s show on MSNBC, for example, was that network’s most popular show when MSNBC executives cancelled it on the grounds that they did not like the fact that Donahue was anti-Iraq war at a time when all the major TV networks were waving the American flag cheering on the invasion. They claimed that the reason was disappointing ratings, but this was a lie and a ruse.

Had the network been solely interested in Nielsen ratings, it would not have cancelled Donahue. Instead, MSNBC executives canned Phil Donahue, citing disappointing rating. But, as Rick Ellis wrote, referring to an internal NBC memo, the main reason was political:

That report—shared with me by an NBC news insider—gives an excruciatingly painful assessment of the channel and its programming. … [T]he harshest criticism was leveled at Donahue, whom the authors of the study described as “a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace.” The study went on to claim that Donahue presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The report went on to outline a possible nightmare scenario where the show becomes “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

When the WMD hoax and other Bush White House lies about Iraq and 9/11 (that the media nearly unanimously passed on uncritically) became known to everyone, MSNBC could have proudly pointed to Donahue as evidence of their network’s uniqueness and courageous pursuit of the truth. MSNBC chose not to take this chance because their executives were more afraid of being seen as insufficiently red, white, and blue than they were eager to be honored for doing accurate reportage—in other words, doing the jobs most people think journalists are supposed to do.

Donahue, interviewed in October 2003, after being fired, told Fox’s

Sean Hannity:

SEAN HANNITY (co-host). What happened at MSNBC ?

DONAHUE . Well, we were the only antiwar voice that had a show, and that, I think, made them very nervous. I mean, from the top down, they were just terrified. We had to have two conservatives on for every liberal. I was counted as two liberals.

Politics and ideology, in other words, frame and affect corporate decisions.

They make up a crucial part of corporations’ bottom lines. Money in the narrow sense is not, in other words, corporations’ only concern. The notion that media are only interested in profits does not take this critical factor into consideration.[*]

In the last few pages of Globalization and the Demolition of Society I briefly and in a concentrated way address the question of this article: How Can I Figure Out What’s True? What follows draws from and expands further upon those pages.

Objective truth and perception are related; if you are not aware of what is true, then your ability to shape events is profoundly compromised by your ignorance of the truth. Truth is not, however, something that is unchanging in nature. The leaders of the US Empire like to believe, for example, that their high tech wizardry makes them invincible, that their military might means that they are unbeatable. In a direct confrontation between military forces it is true that the US would win. But that is not the nature of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Let me illustrate this further: The truth that someone is physically stronger than someone else does not necessarily mean that the weaker person cannot beat the stronger person in a fight. It does mean, however, that the weaker person has to take the fact of the other person’s greater physical strength into account in order to have a chance to win. You cannot just plunge into such a fight heedless of what the conditions are. To have a chance you have to adopt a game plan and choose a battleground that neutralizes or even turns the other person’s greater physical strength into a weakness. This is what martial arts such as Aikido do—use their opponent’s strength against them.

In other words, first of all we need to know what is going on in order to have a chance to affect the course of present and future events. Having access to good information and good analysis is therefore indispensable. Otherwise you are operating blindly or under illusions. If you are preparing a meal to eat, then your ingredients matter a great deal. You cannot make a good dish if your raw materials are poor. Someone can be given the very best ingredients to make a meal in the world, but if they do not know how to cook, then what they make will, in all probability, not be all that good. They could even ruin it entirely. So the ingredients matter, but what you do with those ingredients also matters.

How can we expect people in this country to make good decisions if they are being fed a steady diet of garbage, both by the customary news sources such as mainstream TV news and newspapers, and by trashy entertainment such as reality-TV? Contrary to most people’s perceptions, trashy entertainment isn’t just escapism. These shows bring with them ideological baggage and are subtly training people in that ideology, just as advertising itself contains ideological content and is similarly spreading that ideology in subtle ways. What shows like the Kardashians and other Real Housewives of __________ are about is bling, more bling, and still more bling. The women and men in these shows are infatuated with commodities and treat each other like commodities, each of them out to stab the other in the back to get what they want.

Social Darwinism is alive and well on network TV where it’s all about individual fame and success and the losers go home and have to leave the bright lights. (We are living in times where there is a pornography of the pursuit of material wealth: naked, puerile, and obnoxious. Indeed, some of those who have succeeded in making themselves the subject of the tabloids and more respectable versions of the tabloids such as People Magazine, have literally put out porn to make a name for themselves such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.)

Politics is not just present on Meet the Press. Politics infuses everything we think, say, and do because politics in the broadest sense of the term involves making decisions about priorities and values and allocating resources. We make political decisions when we decide how to spend our time and how we spend our money. We make a political decision when we leave our car idling while parked, contributing to climate change by such carelessness.

There is no such thing, in other words, as escapist entertainment that is free of politics. Politics understood in this way does not have to be deadly boring, which is the way it is presented to most people. Politics can be exceedingly interesting and it’s certainly extremely important when you understand that politics is not simply hearing the GOP and the Democrats bicker. Good intentions are not enough to guarantee good results. Where, then, does one go to get good information, and how does one develop reliable analytical skills?

Any account that you read, view, or hear has been framed interpretively.

This is inevitable; choices must be made as to what to highlight and what to leave out. This is as true of news reporting and any nonfiction endeavor as it is of fiction and art. The question then comes down to what facts are relevant and what those facts add up to. It is not possible to provide a cookbook recipe on how to decide what is relevant and what their meaning is in any given process, but it is possible to lay down certain principles.

The first principle is that any social process involves the dynamic interplay between what sociologists call structure and agency. Structure refers to the social context, the rules stated and unstated for the system in question. (The most commonly articulated manifestation of structure in laypersons’ language is the power and reality of institutional or organizational culture.) Agency refers to individuals’ choices within that larger system context. In this process the overall more determining factor is structure because a) we are social beings not individuals, and b) social structures’ persistence depends upon social rules being followed and those who ignore or violate those rules being sanctioned. As social beings we rely upon social structures, and we can only continue to exist because we exist within them. Structure and social rules exert a constant and powerful force over us.

We need structure and networks to survive. But those structures can be overall hindrances. The solution to a problematic structure is not lack of structure. The solution is not to call upon people to follow their own paths (telling them to disregard peer pressure and other forms of social suasion) and expect that this is an avenue they will adopt. The solution, instead, is a different structure. News stories or analyses that elevate the individual and individual choices above the actual de facto rules of structures are misrepresenting the actual situation. So that is the first thing to keep in mind when you read or see accounts of social issues. Efforts to change must rest principally upon individual and group efforts to replace the problematic structures with different structures.

Second, public policies, corporate behavior, and any other group behavior are not the product primarily of the values, personalities, or choices of the individuals within them. They are primarily the product of the standards being set by the leading individuals in those groups and organizations and the governing logic and rationale of those organizations and groups. Changing the behavior and nature of public policy, et al requires a structural change, and said structural change must be led by individuals who enlist the support of others to supplant the existing leaders and the existing structures. Change, in other words, requires leadership and groups of people acting in concert with each other and under that leadership.

Third, different classes and different groups have different material interests, and those material interests are reflected in ideologies, values, beliefs, and their pursuit of their group’s interests. Recognizing the parameters of different ideologies and how they serve different classes and groupings within those classes is critical to developing an ability to see beneath the surface to the essence of any social issue and social struggle. Put in more common parlance, there are vested interests, and those interests are expressed or articulated by the leading spokespeople for those groups.

In other words, we are not first and foremost individuals. We are first and foremost members of groups, even though subjectively most of us most of the time think about ourselves first and foremost as individuals. Our individual outlook on the world is mainly shaped by factors outside of our individuality. Our individual outlook matches that of at least many others because our group membership and larger social forces overall govern our identity and attitudes. We are not all identical and there is definitely a spectrum but cohort effects (which generation we come from) outweigh individual differences as whole. If you were to tell me someone’s income bracket, gender and sexual orientation, age, neighborhood, and racial/ethnic identity, I could tell you with a pretty high probability of success, their political views and various attitudes even though I do not know who that person specifically is. Why? Because we are products of our environment more than we are individuals that are different from that background and those experiences.

The bottom line, the fundamental division in our society, is between, on the one hand, those whose interests rest upon dominance and the drive towards monopolizing the society and planet’s resources and, on the other hand, those whose interests lie in the husbanding of those resources for the good of the whole rather than the part.

Put another way, there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those for whom truth and justice are decided based on whether or not their own personal interests are involved. That is, if something is harming them directly, then they are concerned. If it is not something that is harming them directly but it is adversely affecting others (such as people of other countries), then they do not care about it and will do nothing about it. In one of the extreme versions of this, but not at all uncommon, is for people who are exposed to an inconvenient truth to dismiss it by saying, “it can’t be true.” In another variant of this view, people will sometimes say, “It’s not true for me.” To such people, “if it’s not affecting me, it’s not going on.” Some people, for example, when told that the US is guilty of torturing prisoners and killing innocents are unmoved by this since they believe – because authorities have told them this – that torture and killings are protecting them from harm. This attitude is what earned Germans who cooperated with the Nazis the insult “Good Germans.”

Here is another example of this attitude. This is from a May 8, 2013 article of mine:

In a May 2, 2013 article in The Guardian, you can find this gem:

Philip Zelikow, a member of the White House Intelligence Advisory Board, said the government was relying on two arguments to justify its drone policy under international law: that the US remained in a state of war with al-Qaida and its affiliates, or that those individuals targeted in countries such as Pakistan were planning imminent attacks against US interests.

When asked by the Guardian whether such arguments would apply in reverse in the unlikely event that al-Qaida deployed drone technology against military targets in the US, Zelikow accepted they would.

“Yes. But it would be an act of warand they would suffer the consequences,” he said during the debate at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “Countries under attack are the ones that get to decide whether they are at war or not,” added Zelikow.

From their own mouths then: when the US does it, it’s justified and it’s not an act of war on countries that the US is raining drones down upon such as Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan. If anyone retaliates to those drone attacks (e.g., with suicide bombings), then they are terrorists and deserve what the US does to them. But if anyone were to use drones against the US, that would be an act of war. And they would suffer the consequences: “Countries under attack are the ones that get to decide whether they are at war or not.”

Does Mr. Zelikow even realize how hypocritical his reasoning is? I would wager that he doesn’t.

The other perspective is that of those who regard justice, fairness, and truth as things that are independent of whether or not they directly affect one’s self. If it’s wrong, whether it is affecting their own person and those who they care most about such as their family, then it’s still wrong. If someone is being treated unjustly, then it’s still unjust, whether or not it’s affecting you directly or even if you are actually being personally advantaged by it. Fair-skinned people, for example, are advantaged by cultural attitudes that favor them but not all fair-skinned people are accepting of racist ideas. Many (though there need to be many more) white people are anti-racists and some of them are staunchly opposed to racism towards minorities, even more vigorous in their opposition to racism than some minorities are.

If you are arguing about an issue – pick one, it doesn’t matter what the issue is – with someone of the opposite perspective you cannot reach a resolution to your differences because what you value is so starkly different. The two perspectives see the world in radically different ways. This poses a question given this: what perspective should guide those who are in positions with the most influence and power to determine how media do their jobs in society?

Do you want the people with the most power to decide this to be those who see the world from the perspective of whatever benefits them privately and those they care most about? Or do you want those in charge to be those who see that truth and justice as universal principles?

If the former are the ones in charge, then what media will do is what they are now doing: catering to private interests at the expense of the whole. If the latter group were in charge, then they would make sure that all viewpoints were put before the people because the process of determining what is true and fair is something that cannot be and should not be decided by a small group but should be and can only be decided by opening it up as broadly as possible.

If your view is that the public interest should predominate, then you would also take the position that the public must be included in the discussion and debate over these questions in real, not superficial ways, and that in fact, opposing viewpoints, including from those whose motives are bad, need to be put on the table for all to sort through so that people can learn through the course of that contention and full airing, what is true and what is not.

People cannot come to understand what is true by being told what is true and expected to just accept it. You can only come to understand what is true through a process of being exposed to multiple perspectives and facts and engaging in the process of sorting through them. That is what a truly democratic consultation process would be. That is what a truly useful media and political sphere would look like.

We know that people have different perspectives. The best way to adjudicate those differences is not to choose whose personal views are right and let them decide but to carry out the process on the basis of a commitment to the value of fully airing all perspectives. If you are interested in the truth, then there is no other way for that to be accomplished and if you are interested in the truth then you fear no debates because whatever is wrong, even if you are yourself wrong, stands the best chance of being revealed through full consultation and open debate. If you are interested in the truth you are not afraid of learning that you are wrong on certain matters because then you can correct those errors rather than persisting in them. Only those who have something to hide and who have a secret agenda dodge an open discussion and full debate.


[*] Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 230-231.


About the author: Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is a Harvard honors graduate in Government and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “Globalization and the Demolition of Society” and Co-Editor/Author of “Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney”. Website: Dr. Dennis Loo




One Response to The Difficult Business of Assessing What’s True

  1. E.Brock on May 30, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    “multiple perspectives” – agree! Most people are smart enough to sort out what’s bunk and what’s reasonable. That can happen only if a broad range of opinions and views are available for consumption. I say “most people”. That doesn’t apply to a significant sized minority who are only interested in one point of view.

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