Finding Truth in the Time of Hysteria

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Before they were nicknamed Quakers, the early converts of Fox called themselves the Publishers of Truth. But in today’s world of manufactured news, click bait, and iPhone reporting – What is the truth?  No matter what news source you subscribe to, our media seem to thrive on hysteria. The world is about to collapse from global warming, ISIS, international bankers, too much control, too little control, the breakdown of the family, racism, globalism, nationalism, the fraying of our social fabric or all of the above.

Evaluating the truth of “facts” today is especially hard because the media are filled with compelling visual images, some with sound and movement. The media thrive on images because they resonate with both the intellect and the heart. They can sum up an experience in a way that a purely factual account cannot. They can also defy analysis and support propaganda.

When I first worked as a writer in Public Broadcasting, I learned two things about screenwriting which hold true for any screen - be it television, computer or cell phone.

Lesson One: a complex verbal message does not have an impact on the viewer unless it is accompanied by a resonant image. I was working on an historical documentary about the school prayer decision. We were frustrated because despite many people sharing painful stories about the impact of this innocuous prayer, the message wasn’t getting across. Then a producer found 1950s news footage of a New York State schoolteacher leading her students in the disputed prayer.  Accompanied by that image, the stories suddenly had an impact; the viewers could see for themselves why the justices were concerned: a state employee leading children in a state-written prayer contained the seeds of fascism. So, Lesson One: When you show people doing something, the viewer reacts, connects with and then understands the verbal message. Images help us frame and understand the world we live in.

Lesson Two: I was writing a mystery series aimed at nine-year-olds. It was a rule of the series that none of the criminals could be people of color.  Advocacy groups have long understood the power of these silent affirmations of people’s worth. People with disabilities are featured in stories not about their handicap, but about their ability to work; women and people of color appear as judges and doctors; today you see women in hijab working computers. The images in mass media can model new habits of perception.

Mass media can be also used as a bully pulpit.  I wrote for a 1980’s series called Cagney and Lacey. The show was structured to be balanced politically – Cagney veering right and Lacey leaning left – so that when episodes considered social issues, they could explore all sides of a question. This was good for the drama, but also essential to modeling change.  So Lesson Two is this: If you don’t represent multiple points of view; you cannot reach a mass audience; if you are preaching to the choir, you cannot  model social change.

My first episode was based on my experience accompanying a Salvadoran immigrant who had been threatened by death squads in Los Angeles. The episode introduced the fact that there was an underground railroad for undocumented political refugees in America to most of the series’ sixteen million viewers.  More importantly, the refugee population got to see themselves on television as people with rights, as something other than criminals. The storyline was picked up by other shows and the public began to understand the plight of undocumented refugees through the eyes of their favorite television characters.  When these characters began to care about the injustice and made decisions to help the refugees, the audience was given a model to think about. Distilling an issue is something television does well. Like images, stories and characters work on people’s minds and hearts.

Of course, it is not just the entertainment industry that uses the media to shape our minds and hearts. From Hitler and FDR’s use of radio to the terrorists of ISIS and Amnesty International’s use of Facebook, political actors use mass media to win hearts and minds.  The Kennedy assassination and funeral was the first public event to receive 24-hour news coverage, and with only three television stations broadcasting in virtually every living room that meant that virtually everyone in the country experienced the same events together.

Today, news events are broadcast live from countless different sources simultaneously and the facts and the frame of the story change.  Consider the slaughter of gay nightclub patrons in Orlando last June. The news coverage played out over a weekend, and depending on when you began watching and which source you were watching, the shooter was a Muslim extremist working for ISIS, a homophobe committing a hate crime, a mentally disturbed individual, or a conflicted gay man lashing out.  In reality, the shooter was a human being, not a coherent constructed villain of a fictional story, and we may never know what pushed him to act.  That did not prevent the various media from appropriating a provocative version of the tragedy to advance their own causes.

What is Friends’ role in this hysteria? As publishers of Truth, I believe we must learn to resist it. I invite you to check your own newsfeed. If you are living in a sheltered bubble of liberal opinion, you might actually be contributing to the hysteria.

In April 1995, I was working on a deadline and missed any television coverage of the Oklahoma City bombings. I missed the images of distraught parents, mangled teddy bears, and blown-out windows and only read the news coverage. There were many messages that week in Meeting for Worship. What struck me was how hysterical Friends seemed, how they struggled with feelings of revenge and hatred, as if the incident had happened to them. I was moved by the events, but I wasn’t hysterical – and I believe that was because I had read about them and not been inundated with manipulative images.

That was twenty years ago. It is impossible to escape manipulative and manipulated images on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram.  I watch as these images - along with click bait headlines and misleading stories - get passed uncritically from person to person, because people’s opinions are affirmed by them, and the sources are difficult to check.  Who are these writers, what is their agenda and what access do they have to facts?  Remember facts?  Why is Hillary always frowning? Why are pictures of Trump so unflattering?

So I ask you again: Do you live in an opinion bubble? Do you only talk to people who agree with you?  Do you uncritically pass on items from VOX or Occupy Democrats?  Because if so, you are not publishing truth, you are passing around propaganda.  Worse, you contributing to the hysteria. 

No matter who is sworn in as president in January, I believe that we as Friends, as Publishers of Truth, are called to help heal the divide that so clearly exists in our country. That work will require us to begin as we begin our meetings for worship – by detaching and waiting in stillness, in calm. Then we will need to listen openly to those we do not agree with. And then we can try to speak Truth.  ~~~

Sharon Doyle is a recovering screenwriter and writing professor and a practicing novelist and essayist.  She has been a member of Orange Grove Monthly Meeting in Pasadena, CA (PYM) for thirty years.