It ought to be self evident that basic honesty is essential to good journalism and meaningful public discourse. But of course, there are political, religious, and commercial demagogues for whom good journalism and meaningful public discourse are not the point, and may even get in the way of their objectives. But when people realize they are being had and publicly object, change becomes possible.
That's why I am pleased to report that conservative evangelical writer Alan Noble recently posted a very strong piece, calling out Fox News host Todd Starnes for authoring "lies" about an alleged government war on Christmas.
Starnes had taken reports of misunderstandings about how the Veterans Administration distributes holiday greeting cards from school children to residents of VA hospitals into a call to arms against the tyrannical federal government. Noble wrote:
Not content to allow his sensationalistic story incite anti-government hatred, he took to Twitter and claimed, “Our forefathers took up arms over tyranny like this,” the inescapable implication being that if we were as bold and courageous as our forefathers, we’d follow their example and rebel.Noble demonstrates that Starnes's claims are not mere exaggerations or errors, but outright lies. That's a pretty extraordinary revelation in its own right.
Starnes promotes his article on twitter by implying that we may need to revolt violently over this incident.
A quick Google search reveals that Todd Starnes lies in his report in order to make the VA look like a tyrannical, anti-Christian arm of the Obama administration.
But I want to underscore that even if it were true that Christmas cards are banned at VA hospitals -- calling on people to rise up against the government over such a thing is not an idea of a sane and mature adult of any religious or non religious persuasion.
Nevertheless, such stuff is so common that it just wouldn't be the Christmas season without the demagogue squad filling the airwaves with bogus (and rarely, if ever, corrected) accounts of attacks on Christmas.
But Noble urges fellow evangelicals to stop being suckers for this stuff. Starnes speaks, Noble notes, from "a distinctly Christian perspective" and he is "a Christian reporting to Christians about persecution against Christians." But most importantly Starnes is widely influential in the evangelical world. Noble finds this "alarming because he [Starnes] consistently lies and manipulates facts in order to exaggerate or fabricate incidences of Christian persecution."
That’s the thing about sensationalism and exaggeration: it hurts real efforts to address real issues. But in this case, there’s more at risk. Starnes’ lies should remind us that for many people and companies, Christians are a market demographic. They know our fears, our values, and our desires.Those of us who think that civil society depends on honesty in journalism and public discourse, whether we are religious or non-religious, would all agree with Noble that Starnes should not be a journalist and that sharing lies makes those who share and promote them complicit, however unwittingly, in the lies.
Starnes sells us what we want to hear. We want to believe that we are the underdog. And Starnes sells us that story, wrapped in language of patriotism and faith. For our own good, we need to reject and denounce hucksters like Starnes. For our own wisdom, for the witness of the Church, and simply because lying is wrong. Starnes should not have a job as a journalist, but more importantly, we should not support him by sharing and promoting his deceptions.
In a 2009 essay titled "Not by Outrage Alone", progressive Episcopal priest Katherine Ragsdale (then the executive director of Political Research Associates; currently President of Episcopal Divinity School) also argued for honesty in public discourse.
"Perhaps one of the most fundamental outrages of all is the erosion of honest public discourse. When, instead of disagreeing honestly, the Right (or any of us) practice to deceive and to cut off debate with spurious claims ... we are left unable to know what to believe, how to speak in order to he heard, how to struggle together to discern the truth. By all means, let us put our values and convictions on the table, with the facts, and then lets disagree about the moral and public policy implications of that data. Let us disagree passionately - an indicator of how seriously we take it all. But let's disagree honestly."I think that Noble and Ragsdale would agree on little about politics and public life. But I think they could agree on this much -- and that is good news for the New Year.