Despite the growing success of media outlets like WorldNetDaily, for most Americans the news is seen on television at 10 or 11 o’clock every evening. “Seeing is believing” has been the watchword of skeptics throughout history. Television news has converted skeptic after skeptic with live pictures, live sound, and live emotions.
Like God’s other creatures with which we share this earth, humans have learned to survive by seeing far enough ahead to escape danger, or take advantage of opportunity. The rabbit that doesn’t see the coyote in time doesn’t get a second chance to explore an “alternative reality.” One sees danger; the other, dinner.
Like the rabbit and the coyote, our survival depends on seeing clearly. Throughout recorded history men and women have relied on what their eyes told them about the world. There are other senses as well, of course, but often their use depends upon our preliminary vision telling us that closer contact is safe.
As television grew in popularity, so it grew in sophistication. “Live” shows like Jack Benny gave way to recorded performances. It was so much easier to correct mistakes when recording. One could always order another “take.” Neither the rabbit nor the coyote had to be satisfied with their first performance. And so the rabbit and the coyote became more like Wily Coyote and the Roadrunner: each possessed an unlimited number of alternative lives. But our reality became less certain. Had we really seen what we’d just seen? “Was it live?” asked one audio tape manufacturer’s advertisement, “or was it Memorex?”
Increasingly, it became difficult to tell. Color was added to broadcast television. Images became even more lifelike. But as the sophistication of television’s producers continued to grow, nothing on the outside of the box alerted us to the editing advances on the inside. We on the outside still saw reality. Those on the inside saw a marvelous opportunity to manufacture reality. They produced a prodigious supply of dramas, musicals, soap operas, situation comedies, adventures, travel shows, and docu-dramas.
But that was entertainment. The news aired at 10 or 11. It used real pictures, real reporters, was filmed in real locations, and featured real victims. The news really happened. It was real because we saw and heard it, broadcast “live,” by real people.
But increasingly, the real news has become the reel news. “Live” interviews are shelved for later use. “Live” events are required to wait for a convenient time to “air.” People, places, and events became “file footage.” Reality can be “touched up” and reconstituted later.
One could still trust the news, of course. Would Walter Cronkite lie to us? Eric Severeid? Robert McNeil? Morley Safer? Andy Rooney?
On 5 October 1996, this report ran in my newsletter, the Conservative Consensus:
- “Germans were horrified to learn that they had been duped by television news programs. Michael Born, a television reporter, and his assistants are on trial, charged with forging 21 television reports and defrauding some of Germany’s most popular television news magazines of about $250,000. Episodes depicting hunting, the Ku Klux Klan, and even war were all made with friends and paid actors. “Born is not alone in the dock,” said a media expert. “There is no way that he got away with it for so long without his bosses turning a blind eye. The pictures were too good to be turned down.” [p.143]
The rabbit and the coyote have “morphed” into the Roadrunner and Wily Coyote. The power to discern truth from reality now lies behind the cameraman’s lens, not in front of the screen. Production technology has exceeded our human abilities to discern entertainment from reality. We must trust the wizard behind the curtain to tell us: What is real, and what is reel?
On Sunday, 6 December, the Washington Post Foreign Service ran an article from London on page A37:
- “A prize-winning documentary about Colombian drug-runners … was a fake, a commission has concluded, with paid actors portrayed as drug dealers and the producer’s hotel room disguised as a drug kingpin’s jungle hide-out.
“An independent panel of lawyers and veteran producers said the news program ‘The Connection’ was essentially fiction.” (“Drug Documentary Aired on CBS Said to Be Fake,” by T.R. Reid)
The report detailed dramatic scenes of drug “mules” carrying millions of dollars worth of heroin, and used “hidden cameras, disguised-voice interviews, secretive locations and other tools of documentary filmmakers,” wrote the Post. The program “included a segment in which the producer had to travel blindfolded for two days by car to reach a secret rendezvous with a drug kingpin. In fact, the interview was held in (the producer’s) hotel room.”
- “The study panel concluded that the flaws with “The Connection” went deeper, however. It says that the basic conclusion of the program — that Colombian drug deals have opened a new smuggling route to Europe through London’s Heathrow Airport — is false.”
“The Connection,” wrote the Post, “has been broadcast around the world and has won eight journalism awards, including three in the United States.”
Indeed. “60 Minutes” aired the program in 1997.
Like the rabbit and the coyote, our survival depends on seeing what is real, and having the courage to act upon it. Deprived of reality, we become nothing more than a pair of frightened animals, engaged in the pursuit of truth, frozen in the roadway as the headlights bear down on us.
Many centuries ago, a very special Man spoke to a similar situation regarding the authorities and power-brokers of His time. His words are recorded in the thirteenth chapter of the book of Matthew:
- “With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:
‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are heavy of hearing,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
and turn for me to heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” (v 14-16)