Say a tree has become overgrown with a large branch hanging over our house. You and I have to decide what to do about it. We go out and stand in front of a tree. If one of us says that’s a tree and the other one says that’s a cat, we might have a difficult time fixing our problem. Or if one of us says it’s a good tree, and the other says it’s an evil tree, that could also get in our way of coming up with a solution.
The above paragraph is silly. But it illustrates what happens if we can’t agree on simple facts. A lot of us fear that is happening in America today.
The world beyond our senses comes to us through media. When I was young, media was newspapers and TV. Now media is a thousand apps and memes and videos that pelt us every day on our phones and I-Pads. Instead of swimming in shallow water, we are now trying to keep our head above water in a fast-moving current.
Today, anyone with a phone has access to literally all the knowledge mankind has accumulated. I can find everything from translations of ancient documents to news happening this instant in Beijing. Early in the internet era, there was a pleasant notion that this could be a golden time for humanity. Armed with information we all shared, this great democratization of knowledge, we could cooperate to solve problems around the globe.
But not if we can’t agree a tree’s a tree.
Discerning fact shouldn’t be difficult if we have all the information in front of us, right? Wrong, as we’ve come to find out. On issues as far-ranging as COVID-19, climate change and a certain recent election, we find “facts” that are absolutely opposite. Tree, cat. How in the world can we solve a problem or find the best way forward in that environment?
On Monday, in Sleepy Eye, a two-hour seminar will address just that. “Evaluating the News” will be an analysis of how to sort out mistruths and false information as it comes to us in media today. It will be directed by LeRoy Harris. Harris is the programming and technology services librarian at the New Ulm Public Library.
Early in the spring, a group of local Farmers Union and NFO members were talking about these issues. We occasionally hold informational meetings around Brown County, usually focused on some farm issue. We talked about all the difficult conversations we’ve had in recent years with friends, neighbors, and family. And how often we can’t even agree on the most basic facts. That ends with us talking around, over, and through each other, but not with or to each other.
Our group’s president, Jerome Graff, wondered whether we couldn’t offer something useful addressing that dilemma. I remembered reading about a series of talks in New Ulm last winter. Some friends had gone and were impressed with the presenter and what he presented.
I reached out to Harris. At first, he was understandably unsure about taking a five-part seminar and compressing it to an evening. He agreed, though, and his effort at distilling and condensing “Evaluating the News” to two hours are available to the public Monday night.
From a promotion for that: “Join us for a no-holds-barred analysis of fact checking, click bait, fake news, misinformation, and bias; including methods for sifting through information and separating facts from fiction.”
It is serendipitous that just as our group was thinking about this topic, Harris was right here in Brown County.
It is free and open to the public, beginning at 7 pm It is at the Sleepy Eye Community Center, 115 2nd Ave. NE, behind the chamber office. (On the city’s website, it is noted that the Community Center is “not the Event Center.” (Apparently, our centers are regularly confused.)
We’ve been careful to point out that this is not a conservative or liberal or right or left effort. We can’t give up on the idea that there is truth and there are facts. That idea itself has taken a beating the last few years and might be on life support. LeRoy says there are no perfect sources of news. Recognizing that is a good first step.
That doesn’t mean we need to berate and bash the media. I’ve known a number of members of the fourth estate, and they work hard at their craft and try to be fair. In The World That I Grew Up In, those newspapers and television networks that I referred to were tightly edited and competed to have the facts.
That’s ancient history. There aren’t many Lou Grants in this media landscape. We must be our own Lou Grants.
If you are watching Fox News or MSNBC more than an hour a day, you might be in some danger. While there are reporters at those networks, most of their schedule is taken by opinion mongers. If you listen to anything long enough, you can become convinced that a tree is a cat.
Then there are algorithms. That allows whatever media you use to target things at you, just you. If you hate Biden, you get an increasing flow of Biden is bad, and if you hate Trump, you get an increasing flow of Trump is bad. Social media makes money by getting your eyes and time. It doesn’t care about your brain, much less your soul.
Why does this matter? I think it behooves all of us as citizens in a democracy to be responsible with our opinions and for sure our votes. We can’t be if we let ourselves be manipulated. It is a type of laziness to let others control our thinking.
Seeking truth is work. Vary your sources. Listen to the other side. Honestly respect them. Don’t be incendiary. There are already enough people with raised voices.
We still refer to this as the American experiment. Two centuries ago, George Washington said, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican form of government, are staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
It is on us right now to pass the fire to the future. We must do the work of seeking truth.
Randy Krzmarzick farms on the home place west of Sleepy Eye where he lives with his wife, Pam.