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Post Truth or Post Trust?

What a mess we’re in. We seem to have entered a strange new era in which we no longer know who or what to believe. A 2016 presidential campaign in which the victor, Donald Trump, used “people are saying” to such insidious effect, has left us struggling to distinguish between accusation-driven and evidence-based information.

Just how serious is this? Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama:

There is plenty of complicity to go around among purveyors and consumers of information.

NYU journalism professor and press critic Jay Rosen recently took news media to task for accepting false equivalencies as balance. “Instead of defining public service as the battle against evidence-free claims, they will settle for presenting the charge, presenting the defense, and leaving it there, justifying this timid and outworn practice with a ‘both sides’ logic that has nothing to do with truth-telling and everything to do with protecting themselves against criticism in Trump’s America.”

Consumers of news and information can be forgiven for becoming overwhelmed by a constant flood of digitally-conveyed content. But we also have been all too willing to accept an assertion as fact and letting it go at that, too busy or even too lazy to take on some responsibility for discerning the basis of the information shaping our perceptions of our world.

Americans’ trust and confidence in mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to its lowest level since the Gallup Poll started asking the question in 1972. Now, only about a third of the American population, 32 percent -down eight percentage points from last year- has any trust in the Fourth Estate, a stunning development for an institution relied upon to inform the public.

The reasons for such pervasive distrust are many, but recent culprits range from the massive failure of mainstream media polling in the recent presidential campaign and a perception that news anchors and reporters have given up on asking tough questions, to the outright mass manufacture of false news stories posing as legitimate. Indeed, the editor of the nation’s second largest newspaper says he will not report Trump lies, even if he lies:

Mr. Baker has since clarified his position. You can read it by clicking here.

“Let’s properly define the problem,” writes Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition. “History and experience tell me it’s not a post-truth era: facts have always been hard to separate from falsehoods, and political partisans have always made it harder. It’s better to call this a post-trust era. In general,” notes Inskeep, “traditional news organizations are more reliable because their business model is to paint the clearest picture of the world that they can manage. But in the post-trust era, we know that any news source can steer you wrong at times, and they’re likely all jumbled together in your news feed anyway.”

Your news feed.

Until only very recently most of us did not fully comprehend, much less possess our own customized “news feed.” And now that most of us do have streams of external information pouring non-stop into our smart devices, we don’t necessarily manage them well, leaving us ever more confused and even misled, exhausted, and bewildered.

What could be more destabilizing to democracy, the cornerstone of which, according to none other than Thomas Jefferson, “rests on the foundation of an educated electorate”?

“The news-savvy consumer is able to distinguish fact from opinion and to discern the hallmarks of evasive language and half-truths. But growing evidence suggests that these skills are becoming rarer,” notes Marcus Banks in an article for American Libraries Magazine.

As this ability to distinguish real from fake information erodes, “nothing less than our capacity for online civic reasoning is at risk,” according to Sam Wineburg, director of the Stanford History Education Group, commenting for Banks’ article.

A November 2016 study by Wineburg’s organization found large majorities of the 7,800 students studied – at times as much as 80 or 90 percent – have trouble judging the credibility of the news they read and are apt to overlook clear evidence of bias in the claims they encounter. These challenges were found to persist from middle school to college – a generation that is by far more computer and internet savvy than older Americans and therefore might be expected to be more adept at sorting out what is real and what is not.

In an interview with NPR’s Kelly McEvers, Wineberg suggests the ability to determine what is reliable or not reliable has suddenly become the new essential skill in our society.

Conveyed by the speed, reach and impact of social media, fake news has converged in “perfect storm” fashion with decades-long efforts to steadily undermine the legitimacy of professional journalism.

“Fake news is the everyday news in the mainstream media. They just make it up,” Rush Limbaugh recently opined on his radio show. Limbaugh’s comment is rich in irony. (Click here to read my own behind-scenes recollection.) Limbaugh and now even the president-elect have appropriated the term “fake news” and turned it against any press they view as hostile to their agenda.

“In defining ‘fake news’ so broadly and seeking to dilute its meaning, they are capitalizing on the declining credibility of all purveyors of information, one product of the country’s increasing political polarization,” writes Jeremy Peters, a reporter in the NY Times Washington bureau in an article about the influence of rightwing talk show hosts and pundits. “And conservatives,” Peters continued, “seeing an opening to undermine the mainstream media, a longtime foe, are more than happy to dig the hole deeper.”

This delegitimization has been taking place for a long time. Laying this at the feet of American conservatives might serve some as a reason to stop here, writing off this article as just another “attack” by “the liberal media.” Conservative media, however, has for some time dominated the American information landscape, free of counterpoint. Non-partisan, evidence-based journalism has become a casualty.

“If the mainstream American news media are to have any hope of avoiding potentially catastrophic results—both for themselves and for American democracy—they need to change how they report on American politics, and on the ideological apparatchiks they continue to describe, misleadingly, as ‘journalists’,” argues Princeton history professor David Bell in a column for The Nation.

This disintegration of trust is dangerous enough when confusion between fact and fiction pertains to politics and governance. But it is life-threatening when people begin to doubt authoritative reports alerting them to immediate threats to public safety – perhaps the derailment of a freight train resulting in spillage of toxic chemicals; or maybe the imminent approach of a devastating tornado – the latter an example of another convergence: this recent acceleration of general distrust in media occurring on top of years upon years of often wild-eyed “boy-who-cried-wolf” hyperbole by broadcast meteorologists.

A mess, indeed. But the situation is not altogether hopeless,

Back to NPR, All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro, and a follow-up to the interview with Stanford Professor Wineburg that looks at efforts to bring “news literacy” to the forefront in education:

Peter Adams, the News Literacy Project’s senior vice president for educational programs, writes for the website edutopia.org about encountering teacher after teacher over the last five years who can recall two kinds of digital experiences with students.

“The first I think of as digital native moments, when a student uses a piece of technology with almost eerie intuitiveness. As digital natives, today’s teens have grown up with these tools and have assimilated their logic. Young people just seem to understand when to click and drag or copy and paste, and how to move, merge and mix digital elements.

The second I call digital naiveté moments when a student trusts a source of information that is obviously unreliable. Even though they know how easy it is to create and distribute information online, many young people believe — sometimes passionately — the most dubious rumors, tempting hoaxes (including convincingly staged encounters designed to look raw and unplanned) and implausible theories.”

Adams notes that “news literacy is a relatively new field in media studies that focuses on defining and teaching the skills that all citizens need to evaluate the credibility of the information they encounter, and on examining the role that credible information plays in a representative democracy.”

In addition to the News Literacy Project’s interactive “Checkology” program, the Center for News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism just launched a six-week online course on distinguishing fake news from reliable information. Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens is described as “a groundbreaking massive open online course (MOOC).

An extensive news literacy curriculum has been developed for the classroom by the American Press Institute.

The Trust Project at Santa Clara University takes advantage of its location in the heart of Silicon Valley “to imagine technology that can bake the evidence of trustworthy reporting — accuracy, transparency, and inclusion –plainly into news practices, tools, and platforms.”

The Trust Project was kickstarted with funding from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark:

Google is contributing financial support to the Trust Project which is also sponsored by the Markkula Foundation.

In Britain, the recent Brexit vote has given rise to so-called “Constructive Journalism.” This more solutions-focused approach to reporting “draws on concepts from positive psychology, moral psychology, and prospective psychology and allows the spotlight to be put on the immense potential for constructive solutions within society,” according to Giselle Green in a guest blog for the Association of Journalism Education in the UK. “Reporters/writers actively look for evidence of what’s working, or what could work,” she writes. “This isn’t about ignoring negative stories or searching for happy, fluffy stories. Or about advocacy journalism. It’s about rigorous reporting of serious issues which are framed to show what people are doing to address problems.”

The concept has been adopted by the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, the Huffington Post and Upworthy, among others.

It seems safe to say that until reality itself vanishes, we will never occupy a “Post-Truth” world. The truth is not perception. The truth is verifiable, undisputed fact.

“Trust,” on the other hand notes Northeastern University psychologist David DeSteno, “implies a seeming unknowable — a bet of sorts, if you will. At its base is a delicate problem centered on the balance between two dynamic and often opposing desires: a desire for someone else to meet your needs and his desire to meet his own.”

News, topical

Green’s Guide to Safe Refuge

For African-Americans, travel by car through Lexington and across the USA during the Jim Crow era was a harrowing experience. Some whites, like Lexington’s Joe Duff and his father and brother, welcomed motoring blacks to pull over, rest, refresh and fortify. But the Negro Motorists’ Green Book was a coast-to-coast Godsend. Here is its story.

~ O ~

For much of the nation’s history “the democratic idea of getting out on the open road, finding yourself, heading for distant horizons was only a privilege for white people,” observed Cotton Seiler in Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America.

For traveling Americans who happened to be black, relying on the kindness of strangers was risk with a capital R.

Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Lib. of Cong

Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

The Kentucky Civil Rights Act enacted in 1966 prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on race, color, disability, religion, or national origin. But before ’66 and prior to the 1964 passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act, the tripwires of racial segregation in Lexington and most everywhere else in America were strung taut across the country’s landscape.

A Washington Post account of the Green Book notes that “Jim Crow laws across the South mandated that restaurants, hotels, pool halls and parks strictly separate whites and blacks. Lynchings kept blacks in fear of mob violence. And there were  thousands of so-called ‘sundown towns,’ including in northern states like Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, which barred blacks after dark, an unofficial rule reinforced by the threat of violence.”

Green Books were sold at Esso service stations, one of the few gas station chains that served African Americans.

At the time, as today’s Baby Boomers were in their formative years, Joe Duff worked for his dad at the family service station on the corner of North Broadway and the newly constructed New Circle Road in Lexington, Kentucky.

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The year was 1954. There was a Jerry’s Restaurant across the street. It was for whites only. But the word was circulating among traveling African-Americans that although Duff’s was not an Esso station, Joe’s father was a kind and accommodating man…

For African-Americans increasingly on the move for work, play and family visits, there was a premium on reliable information about places of refuge like Duff’s Service Station in Lexington, Kentucky – knowing where to and where not to make a rest stop, let road-weary and irritable kids out of the car to stretch their legs, find a decent meal, relieve a bursting bladder or refresh with a good night’s sleep.

Eighteen years earlier, when Joe Duff was only a toddler, Harlem postal employee and civic leader Victor H. Green had heard one too many accounts of humiliation or violence against blacks traveling across their own nation and was inspired to come up with a credible improvement to often fatefully inaccurate word-of-mouth.  

'40 Edition - GreenBook_AOTM

The Negro Motorist Green Book organized by state and city places along the nation’s highways where it was safe and welcoming to make a rest or overnight stop.

An introduction in the 1937 edition states: “The idea of ‘The Green Book’ is to compile facts and information connected with motoring, which the Negro Motorist can use and depend upon. We are appealing to the Motorist and Business places for their whole-hearted cooperation to help us in our endeavor, by contributing ideas, suggestions, travel information and articles of interest.” It concludes with the appeal: “Let’s all get together and make motoring better.”

The guide listed cities and places across the country where black motorists were welcome to make a pit stop, check into a motel for the night and have a meal and even in some places like Lexington, enjoy some live music – if not much else.

KY1

Soon, those who needed to know about “The Green Book,” had become well aware of it. To much of the rest of America, the “Go Guide” as some readers referred to it, was virtually unknown. The guide was in limited supply with no more than 15,000 printed annually.

And despite Green’s efforts to develop a network of correspondents across the country, there were gaps in the information that left travelers passing through places like Lexington continuing to count on the grapevine. Duff’s service station, for example, never appeared in its pages.

In an interview with NPR’s Neal Conan, the late social activist and civil rights leader Julian Bond recalled how his family relied on Green’s handy guide, by then tucked into the glove boxes of many black-owned vehicles from family cars to musician and baseball team tour buses. “It didn’t matter where you went, Jim Crow was everywhere then, and black travelers needed this badly,” he said.

Washington Post staff writer Courtland Milloy began his own account of a family road trip to the American south by recalling fidgeting in the back seat of his father’s Buick Special for the long drive to Grandma’s house. “The trip started with gaiety in the dark hours of the morning, but as the day wears on it becomes a nightmare. It is 1958. I am almost eight years old, quenching my thirst with bladder-busting cold drinks while riding through the hot, dusty South in an unairconditioned car with my two younger sisters.

Mom is seated attentively next to Dad. He is usually all-powerful and in control, but today, for some reason, he is uptight.”

“The Green Book tried to provide a tool to deal with those situations,” noted Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in an interview with the New York Times. “It also allowed families to protect their children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which they might be thrown out or not permitted to sit somewhere. It was both a defensive and a proactive mechanism.”

In the parallel universes of a racially segregated society, what had become a staple to some was virtually unknown to many. Green ceased publication in 1964 with passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act and its prohibition of discrimination in public accommodations. In theory, at least, selective “No Vacancy” had been outlawed. That’s not to suggest that bigotry at the lunch counter or registration desk magically disappeared. It takes quite a long time to bring about change of such magnitude. Vestiges of Jim Crow linger in America to this day.

Writers, artists, academics and the just plain curious have been dusting off Victor Green’s publishing legacy and finding within its pages a nuanced context for how things once were and what informs and influences the perspectives of today.

The reason Courtney Milloy’s father and so many like him steeled themselves when behind the wheel is illuminated in Candacy Taylor’s video, “The Negro Motorist Green Book Project: Documenting Sites of Sanctuary. Taylortravels-while-black” one of America’s most iconic highways, offering an eye-opening reminder of how the road trip, so readily taken for granted by many Americans, was for some fraught with gut-churning dangers of all sorts, mile after mile.

The guide, now reemerging from history’s shadows, is the focus of The Green Book Chronicles. A film crew led by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, author of the children’s book Ruth and the Green Book, and Becky Wible Searles, an animation professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus have interviewed some of Mr. Green’s relatives and have tracked down families who owned sites mentioned in the books or who relied on it for travel suggestions.

Ramsey discussed the Green Book in an interview with public radio’s Rick Steves.

The Green Book is a central fixture in the 2015 film 100 Miles to Lordsburg, set in 1961, the fictional story of Jack and Martha, a young, African-American couple, traveling across the country for a new job opportunity in California.

The Dresser Trunk Project, a traveling exhibition organized in 2007 by William Daryl Williams, then an Associate in the University of Virginia School of Architecture and now director of the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati, used the Green Book to inform the designs of boxes based on a dresser trunk — the case musicians used to carry their clothing and gear — to tell the stories of African-American artists who traveled along the Southern Crescent train line. The trunks feature stories, photographs, maps, and computer-generated models documenting the clubs, hotels, boarding houses and other places that accommodated black musicians in eleven cities along the Crescent line (currently the Amtrak service connecting New Orleans and New York).

A dresser trunk created by artist Lisa Henry-Benham for the Carver Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia -- later demolished for the expansion of a street -- which was the only hotel listed for black travelers in the "Negro Motorist" Travelers Guide. Photo by Lisa Henry-Benham.

A dresser trunk created by artist Lisa Henry-Benham for the Carver Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia — later demolished for the expansion of a street — which was the only hotel listed for black travelers in the “Negro Motorist” Travelers Guide. Photo by Lisa Henry-Benham.

As the pages of the Green Book indicate, the Lexington of the 1950s didn’t offer much at all to the traveling African-American. Still, there were people like the Duff brothers and their dad, letting it be known that some empathy and accommodation could be found on one corner of North Broadway and New Circle Road.

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Duff, now 82, has had a lot time since those days to reflect and observe the people who pull up to his gas pumps or bring their vehicles to his service bays…

~O~

UnderMain articles by Tom Martin:

Post Truth or Post Trust?

In Search of Another Way

Friendship in Troubling Times

The Wedding Day Kiss