In the past few years, a lot of talk has been circulating about the proliferation of “fake” news and photographs. This is the result of technological advances that provide the means to alter and deliver representations of “alternate realities.” Manipulation of information, whether pictorial, verbal or editorial is easily accomplished and common. We can now choose how and who supplies the facts upon which we form our reality. Truth has become malleable and nuanced.
The challenges of a myriad of delivery systems that cater to specific beliefs and prejudices complicates our perception of what has transpired, forming the basis for future action. This is a quantum leap from where we, as consumers of information, were just a lifespan ago. The date of December 7, 1941 was proclaimed by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a “date which will live in infamy,” to a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress on December 8, 1941, one day after a devastating attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Is it still a date living in infamy? The facts are indelible and immutable.
Dissemination of news in those days was relatively slow and relied on reports from a few major sources that were allowed the luxury of time to check and confirm information, even in the chaotic environment following a sudden and historic event. Public response to the attack on Pearl Harbor was united by the magnitude and catastrophic consequences that killed over 2,000 sailors and disabled the Pacific Fleet of United States Battleships and aircraft. The USS Arizona remains entombed in the harbor as a reminder of the sacrifice and united response and spirit of the American people. That generation has been reduced to a few survivors; unfortunately, for some the date is a history lesson with little resonance.
Even the subsequent September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center is receding into the background of American life. The horror of watching footage of the Viet Nam conflict and more recent reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan has also been relegated to background noise without substance or meaning. Events that galvanize and solidify unity are no longer viewed through a single lens of accepted facts. The problem of separating fact from fiction has intensified with the advent of improved information technology. We receive information quickly but often with distortion, flaws and purposeful or inadvertent misinterpretation. In an effort to compete, news outlets’ shared truth is often sacrificed to attract an audience.
News now has diverged into multiple and distinct silos of political reference. The result is a fracture of American resolve and spirit that disassociates facts and reality from delivery systems. Even on the local scene, emotional and sensational appeals can elicit responses that are highly visible but transitory. Appeals to regional media can attract momentary attention but following an anticipated bloodbath, it rapidly disappears from view when carnage is absent or subsides.
Fortunately, many disagreements at the local level in our communities have been aired in a sensible and well researched manner that provokes thought and corrective action, if necessary. Hopefully, as campaign rhetoric heats up, we can continue to share a basic sense of reality and purpose. Past historic events have elicited a united response to threats to our democracy. As proponents of a democratic form of government at all levels – local to national – a shared reality is an important step to its preservation.