Photo Credit

I have always considered myself informed about world events.

I have a decent (as far as I know) understanding of history, politics, and economics. This provides me with a good solid grounding in how the world works, giving me context for news stories.

And I have always consumed reasonably high quality news media, from NPR to the Daily Show, from CNN to the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Finance.

With the advent of Facebook, I have felt even more informed about the world, because even when I’m not actively seeking serious news content, other people post it.

But something very disturbing has occurred to me in the last year:

The media lies.

They say things that are not true. They take events out of context. Often, they don’t even know what they are talking about.

I’m not talking about the blatant fear-mongering lying of Fox News. I’m not even talking about the not-so-subtle progressive bias of Morning Edition. I’m not talking about spinning out opinions based on tiny snippets of fact, or asking leading questions in interviews.

It has become clear to me that the conventional news media is simply untrustworthy and unreliable as a source of information.

This has happened to me because over the past year, I have finally had first-hand knowledge of events playing out in the news. And the facts on the ground bear little resemblance to the reporting.

Were this one single incident, I might dismiss it as a particular case of media bias. Were it something I was personally involved with, I might be willing to entertain the notion that I myself am not a reliable observer of events.

Neither of these is the case.

Over the last year, there have been three separate, mostly unrelated ongoing stories where I personally have an above-average level of information access and understanding — domains where I do not rely on news media for primary information.

This is was a new experience for me, because I usually do rely on news media for this sort of information, and I typically do not have any special personal knowledge of world events.

In all three cases, the news coverage, and the resulting public opinion, has been almost entirely fabricated.

The Hip New Pope

In March of 2013, a new Pope was elected to lead the Roman Catholic Church. I watched the live stream from Rome.

His more casual style, as compared to his predecessor, was immediately notable (and noted), as was his humility in the face of such an unexpected promotion.

Though his personal style and areas of concern do, indeed, differ from the Emeritus, he described himself as a “true son of the Church.”

Now, I am not exactly an expert on Roman ecclesiastical culture, nor a church insider of any sort. But some of my friends are, and I follow news reports directly out of Rome. If you read a New York Time blog post about something interesting that the Pope did, I probably read about it the day before in the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano.

Also, I know Catholic teaching and recent church history pretty well.

Let me tell you — the narrative that has grown up around Pope Francis is astounding. It is also mostly a lie.

One example is Pope Francis and his Radical Socialism

Early in his Papacy, Francis released a document called Evangelii Gaudium. (I wrote about it here.)

Along with fairly standard exhortations to live rightly, be faithful to God, and serve our neighbor, it contained some rather interesting language about economic policy and social justice.

Or, it would have been interesting if it wasn’t precisely in line with everything the Catholic Church has said about economics since the late Nineteenth Century.

Your own opinions about Catholic Social Teaching aside (I think it is confused), there was absolutely nothing new or meaningful about Pope Francis condemning unrestrained capitalism or calling for a distributive economic system.

But the American media had an absolute field day, as if Benedict, with his Prada slippers and embroidered vestments, was some kind of capitalist robber baron, and Pope Francis was a working-class prophet speaking truth to power.

The truth is that the document released by Francis was almost certainly composed under Benedict’s reign, and in any case was completely consistent with statements made many times by Benedict, John Paul II, and every other pope for the last hundred and twenty years.

My favorite papal media example is Pope Francis and the Used Car.

In a somewhat typical symbolic gesture, an old Italian priest donated a 20-year-old used car to the Vatican (apparently, similar to a car once owned by the Pope when he lived in Argentina).

Upon being presented with the car, Francis grabbed the keys, jumped in, and drove it down the street and back.

This story is, in my opinion, awesome enough as it is. It’s hilarious, really.

Within days, I started seeing some version of the headline “Pope trades in Popemobile for old beater.”

The first time I saw this statement, it was intended as something of a joke, and the full context was provided. But pretty soon I started seeing it as evidence of The New Theology of the Francis Papacy. Sketches, bios, and puff pieces were all repeating this little gem: Pope Francis drives a crappy old used car around the Vatican.

As if this is his normal mode of transportation.

I could go on with example after example, but it gets tedious pretty quickly. From his statements on women to his statements on gay people to his statements on the poor, there is really nothing new or even particularly interesting about his theology.

More troubling is the celebrity-style gossip-mongering. “Real” news outlets regularly report on supposed positions of Francis, or expected changes at the Vatican, on no more evidence than an obviously biased source saying that they heard him say something about it.

Whenever he says something (or is said to have said something) that appears to bolster a liberal and progressive political or economic agenda, it is highlighted as a “new day for the Church,” even if the same thing was said the same way by ten other popes and Thomas Aquinas. Whenever he says something that disproves the theory that he is really a progressive humanist, the media attributes it to some conspiracy of cardinals working to keep him in line.

You may care about all this or not, but the point is that I KNOW the media is lying. For the first time in my life, the curtain has been pulled back.

Bitcoin

First of all, I know way less about Bitcoin than I do about the Vatican.

That being said, I apparently know way more about it than most journalists and news commentators, even those who report on finance, economics, and technology.

The first “mainstream” news story I heard about Bitcoin was on NPR’s Market Place, a show I used to listen to regularly, and always found relatively insightful.

They were sort-of trying to explain it to their audience, in a way that made clear that they assumed their listeners had perhaps never heard of it before.

And they got their facts wrong.

I’m not saying they help philosophical opinions about the nature of money which I happen to disagree with. I’m not saying their coverage was biased against the legitimacy of crypto-currency.

I’m saying they simply didn’t know what they were talking about.

The host who was asking questions didn’t know enough to ask any intelligent ones. The guest who was supposed to be informing us about it made a number of factual errors, besides not really addressing any of the things that make Bitcoin interesting or viable.

Since then, I have heard Bitcoin covered a number of times of market and finance oriented news outlets. With few exceptions, they simply don’t know what they are talking about, and appear to make no reasonable attempt to find out. Most of the Bitcoin confusion I have heard could have been straightened out by reading the Wikipedia article on it.

The #Icantbreathe protests

I live in Berkeley, CA.

Groups here and in neighboring Oakland have been engaged in protests for the last few weeks.

A number of people I know or have ties to have been involved in the protests, and real-time information is constantly available on Twitter and FaceBook.

The overwhelming reports from people actually on the ground have described the protests as extremely peaceful.

The handful of hoodlums are being ignored by the police, who could easily arrest them without disturbing the legitimate protesters.

Meanwhile, the protesters themselves are providing actual policing support, blocking the vandals from entering buildings, returning looted property, putting out fires, and even picking up trash from over-turned garbage cans.

The protests themselves have been notable for their otherwise lack of extreme activity. One friend of mine described the scene as “people milling around.”

Until the police show up and deliberately provoke confrontations.

One would hope that the news media would play a part in revealing what is going on here: the peaceful protests, the self-organization of the crowd, the out-of-proportion police response, the senseless deployment of tear gas, the beatings.

And yet, major news outlets carry reports of violent protests that turn to looting. When minor arguments or unrelated fights break out (as always happens when you get enough people together), camera crews swarm in like vultures to capture video that supports their narrative.

Stories run in major newspapers and websites highlight minor injuries to police, ignoring the injuries inflicted by them on the crowd. Police are interviewed, protestors are not.

Mayhem caused by a small handful of young, middle-class, white malcontents from North Bay suburbs is attributed to rage in the black community, or to political anarchists, or to anyone who would demonstrate against obvious abuses of police power.

What else?

It’s easy to look at these examples and attribute some over-riding agenda on the media. It may even be accurate.

But what I find particularly troubling is that this industry — the industry from which I and almost everyone I know, gets the majority of their day-to-day information about the world — this industry apparently can’t be bothered with facts.

And I have no way of knowing when they are reporting accurate information and when they are making things up.

Sure, I know a lot about the Vatican. And I’m friends with some people who are really into Bitcoin. And I happen to live in Berkeley at the right time.

But the number of subjects I don’t know anything about is much higher than the number of subjects where I even know enough to ask an intelligent question.

I don’t know anything about climate change. Or Iran. Or Nuclear weapons. Or the actual contents of the Health Care Reform Act. Or the spread of Ebola in Africa. Or sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. Or Mormonism. Or what plays are popular on Broadway. Or whether the iPhone 6 bends when you put it in your pocket.

If I don’t know anything about these topics, and I’m fairly well informed, who does, actually? Who really knows?

The root of my libertarianism

I am not a libertarian because I think all people should have to fend for themselves. I don’t condone libertine behavior or liberal morals. I don’t really like guns. I don’t mind paying taxes. I like public libraries.

I’m a libertarian because, increasingly, I am convinced that no one, no government, no agency, no planner, can possibly know enough about enough different things to make decisions on behalf of other people.

I recently got into an argument with a progressive liberal friend who insists that white working class people who vote Republican are “voting against their economic interests.” My only thought: How do you even know that?

Most political plans, most economic interventions, most grand initiatives, rest on the notion that we can predict what effects our actions will have.

How can this even be possible if we barely know what the current conditions are? How can we know whether stimulating the economy, or pumping up GDP, or anything else will have a worthwhile positive impact on any individual person’s quality of life if we barely know what anyone’s current quality of life is?

We can’t.

We have a fundamental problem of information. If the people whose job it is to provide information to everyone else can’t manage to get their facts straight, whether through bias, conspiracy, or just plain ignorance, there is really little hope that the rest of us, or even our “leaders” (who, lets face it, all read the newspaper) have any idea what is actually going on in the world.