Thursday, January 10, 2013

Trust but verify

Within one day, the issue of media reports and their trustworthiness came up twice for me, in 2 different venues.

Months ago, Dann Todd -- libertarian/conservative blogger, linked for you over on the sidebar in my list of good reading -- posted a blog entry about the filmmaker whose film trailer was at the time being blamed for the Benghazi attack.  Dann was referring us to another source, and I had some serious criticism of that source.  OK, I did also rake Dann over the coals for believing it....

A couple days back he posted a followup responding to some of my objections.  I'll let you read it for yourself, his original September post, with my critical comment, and the followup post.  They cover both our points, no need to go over it again, but Dann's willingness to take second looks and respond thoughtfully is engaged in by too few people and should be admired all the more for that.

He mentions the problem of responding to a current news story quickly, instead of letting response simmer for awhile.  It is difficult to juggle that.

Journalism has never been infallible, nor has it claimed to be, and it's always been important to take time with a piece and cast a critical eye on its points.  Nowadays with some bloggers being granted pro-journalist status by their massive readerships, it's even more important.

They can be full of it, liberal and conservative alike.  The instant "wisdom" of many liberal rant-ers after the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the Newtown shooting, was often jawdroppingly ghastly.  I'm not letting conservatives off the hook.  Ill-considered reactions are more about lack of professional training than about political leanings.  It takes education and experience to look at one's raw feeling and evaluate whether it has basis or logic, or is oversimple.

Hard to keep a blog timely, keep response heartfelt and not over-edited into blandness, without reacting early, while data is still coming in. If you're not a reader of Comic Strip of the Day, you should be because it often covers editorial cartoons and the issues they present, and Mike Peterson is a pro journalist and a fast sorter of wheat from chaff.

Dann also does that point-by-point unpacking in the followup entry, and casts his critical eye on the claim by the filmmaker's son that his father isn't tech savvy.  The no-computers terms of the dad's probation for bank fraud make that suspect.

Sometimes, doing that critical evaluation is absolutely all that I, as the reader, have to go on.

I speak of the other issue I had, a Facebook post I'd responded to the afternoon before.

There's a internet story that's been circulating for nearly a decade - a pastor named Mathes posted a blog entry almost 10 years ago, about an experience he claims he had.  In his account, he attended a state prison volunteer-training program conducted to discuss the three major religions and help volunteers understand inmates' various beliefs.

Mathes says that after the Muslim Imam spoke, he had some questions for that Imam about the instruction in the Koran to kill infidels.  In Mathes' account, the Imam sheepishly admits that, yes, they are called to kill Christians and others who do not convert.

That is assuredly one radical interpretation, but not the mainstream one. 

Mathes then answers the Imam, compares that concept of Allah to the God of love presented in the narrative of Christ, and is just made of win.

Many old classmates from my high school have friended me on FB, and show they've gone in a hard-right direction.  One posted this story, with a final statement that we should all "For  Christ's sake, pass it on!" because Islam was growing and would soon be a US voting majority (?) and elect a Muslim president.

Here is the assessment of Mathes' account. I tried to do my usual polite thing, but i expressed skepticism and posted a link to snopes in my comment on my old classmate's post.

The whole thing stayed very civil, but another commenter directed his comment to me, pointing out that each source -- the original account by Mathes and the snopes debunking -- was only a source. He concluded his comment with:  " 'Trust but verify' - isn't that what Reagan said?"

I acknowledged that, because it's true.

Snopes is a source;
the prison officials who say it didn't happen the way Mathes claimed are a source;
Mathes, who was there, is a source.

That leaves only us, and our ability to think critically.  So, no, I can't say that i take snopes as infallible. To their credit, snopes calls the reliability of the account "mixed," because Mathes did write it and DOES declare it accurate, while others who were also present differ.

I disbelieve the Mathes story because it sounds absurd.

That's what decided me.  It made no sense.  The program directors in a prison are unlikely to choose a radical jihadist Imam as their source for Islam info for a program.  Any presenter would be thoroughly vetted.

But sure, a radical could work hard to hide his radicalism and slip through.

Only, we're then asked to believe that he'd not only get through the vetting process, but that he'd come right on out with Kill The Infidel, there.  There, in a panel discussion, in a prison manned by state law enforcement types.  Not in whispered private discussion with somebody after the presentation, but in the panel.

I mean, that would be great.  The newly created Department of Homeland Security would be going through that Imam's phone records, financials, known associates, and bagged trash, as fast as a newly-created department could pull it together, but it's highly doubtful to me that he'd say this stuff even if he believed it, and it's even more doubtful that in 2003, after 9/11 and the same year that the Iraq War started, he'd be so unprepared to hide radicalism as to be that caught off guard by a question that was not even a trick question.

Between the implausibility of the Imam's response, and the accounts of prison officials who say that not only was there no Imam present (a Muslim inmate gave the Muslim presentation), but that the question did not come up  ... the 2 things together leave little room other than to call the pastor an intentional liar.

A lot of people default to trust in a minister.  Would a clergyman have such weak faith in Christianity's ability to prevail on truth alone, that he'd make up stories?  Or is it ego, a need to be a David-mops-the-floor-with-Goliath hero in the eyes of his readers?

If it did not happen as he claims -- and I do not claim it is objectively proven (that would need unedited one-take video or something) -- he both demonstrates a lack of faith in the Christian message, and he violates the trust --or what's left of it-- that people have in him and in the ministry.

Finally, he asks us to believe that the Imam was sheepish and shamed and head-bowed.  Do ardent Christians really need to believe a radical jihadist Imam would melt in the face of such questions like the drenched Wicked Witch??  For serious?

Come ON.  Logic.  Critical thinking.  Hello?

We do need to verify, but in too many cases, we can't do it.  We have to trust.

If varied, and even opposite accounts of an event do not reveal an obvious "no way" factor like this, it's a lot harder to sort them out.  This is why these journalists, writers and bloggers hold a sacred trust.

Sacred.  There are things we can sort with our mental abilities, but many we can't.

I dunno about Reagan's admired quote, because no media seems to be truth-driven anymore.  I
might prefer Agent Mulder: "Trust no one."



southernyankee said...


Dann said...

Thanks for reading all my unpacking, Ruth. I concur...and sadly lean towards the Mulder end of things.