Back in July, trying to make sense of developments like the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen argued that we live in an age when people are indifferent to truth–when facts are “little annoyances easily upended.” That, however, is a self-serving excuse. The real problem is that people no longer trust the media and other gatekeeping institutions to tell them the truth, and therefore feel the “facts” provided by these institutions are unreliable things on which to base decisions. And that distrust is merited, as two recent examples show.
The first is the obituary for Shimon Peres that ran in the print edition of the International New York Times. It described the collapse of the Oslo peace process as follows:
Mr. Peres, Mr. Rabin and Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
But the era of good feelings did not last. It was shattered in 2000 after a visit by the opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the sacred plaza in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The next day, the Israeli police fired on stone-throwing protesters, inaugurating a new round of violence that became known as the second intifada.
Needless to say, this picture of events is totally false. The “era of good feelings” didn’t sail serenely on until Sharon “shattered” it by visiting the Temple Mount. It was actually shattered almost immediately after the Oslo Accords were signed by a wave of Palestinian terror that claimed more Israeli victims in two and a half years than all the terror attacks of the preceding decade.
Yet two things make this warped presentation of reality particularly remarkable. First, in an obituary for Shimon Peres, you’d think it would be hard to ignore facts that played a seminal role in his political career. The multiple suicide bombings of early 1996, which the obituary omits, were the direct cause of his narrow loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 election, a loss that permanently ended his prime ministerial ambitions.
Second, this wasn’t an innocent mistake stemming from ignorance. The obituary’s online version actually does include a paragraph about the bombings and the election, right after the paragraph about the Nobel Prize. It also correctly says that the violence “accelerated” after Sharon’s visit to the Mount, rather than depicting this visit as shattering a nonexistent calm.
In other words, some editor in the Times’ European offices deliberately distorted the obituary writer’s facts to present a false picture of how the Oslo Accords collapsed. He or she cut any mention of the 1996 bombings; substituted the false sentence about “the era of good feelings,” which doesn’t appear in the online version; and then replaced the “acceleration” of the conflict with the false assertion that Sharon’s visit “shattered” the peace.
Nor is the reason for this distortion any mystery. The standard narrative in most of Europe, and also at the Times, is that Oslo’s collapse was Israel’s fault, while the Palestinians were largely blameless. Informing readers that massive suicide bombings began immediately when Oslo’s architects—Rabin and Peres—were still in office contradicts that narrative. So faced with a conflict between the facts and his or her preferred narrative, an editor at one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers chose to rewrite the facts. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by his profession.
The second example was last week’s astonishing report by the Council of Europe’s human rights agency, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, which effectively urged the British media stop informing readers that terrorist attacks committed by Islamic extremists are in fact committed by Islamic extremists. Granted, it didn’t say so explicitly. If you read the recommendations devoid of context, they merely urge “more rigorous training for journalists to ensure better compliance with ethical standards” and that “the authorities find a way to establish an independent press regulator.” But it’s quite clear what ECRI intends by these seemingly innocuous recommendations because they are immediately preceded by the following paragraph:
ECRI urges the media to take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups. ECRI considers that, in light of the fact that Muslims are increasingly under the spotlight as a result of recent ISIS-related terrorist acts around the world, fuelling prejudice against Muslims shows a reckless disregard, not only for the dignity of the great majority of Muslims in the United Kingdom, but also for their safety. In this context, it draws attention to a recent study by Teeside University suggesting that where the media stress the Muslim background of perpetrators of terrorist acts, and devote significant coverage to it, the violent backlash against Muslims is likely to be greater than in cases where the perpetrators’ motivation is downplayed or rejected in favour of alternative explanations.
So unless you assume the recommendations have no connection to the paragraph immediately preceding them, it’s hard to avoid concluding that ECRI, in fact, wants the press to hide the Muslim identity of Islamic terrorists and attribute their motive to something other than Islamist ideology. In other words, it wants the press to lie to the public about who the terrorists are and why they’re committing attacks. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by the European Union.
I don’t like our brave new fact-free world any better than Cohen does. But it’s the inevitable result of one very ugly fact: Institutions people used to trust, like the media and the EU, have forfeited that trust by repeatedly lying to the public in order to promote their own agendas. And the only way to start repairing the damage is for these institutions to acknowledge their own role in destroying the credibility of “facts” and then finally start telling the truth as it is, rather than as they would like it to be.
Originally published in Commentary on October 10, 2016