Consuming the Media Wisely: Part Four

This subject has fascinated me for years, and writing these blog posts concerning the news media has been a great experience for me.  I apologize for taking so many words to express these ideas.  This will be my last entry on this subject!



It’s emotionally satisfying to read quotations from people in any news article, and the emotional impact of these witness statements tempt news writers to rely on them for filler in their news stories—especially when there is a great lack of actual information to report.  Recently I read what was probably the fluffiest news article I’ve ever seen in a supposedly serious newspaper.  The birth of the new princess in the U.K. was kept so carefully under wraps that the poor reporters were at a loss to provide any information on the subject as they waited for the official press release.  Unable to gain access to anyone who would actually know anything, one reporter filled his article with quotes from a random woman he had selected from the crowds on the street before the hospital where the baby was being born.  This woman had no connection with the royal family or with anyone who had any connection with the family—she knew no more about the blessed event than I did, a perfect stranger from across the pond.  But her every opinion was treated as seriously as any official statement.

This was an obvious attempt at filling out a sparse article with . . . something!  But so many more serious events are also padded with interesting but completely superfluous quotations from persons who have no actual knowledge of the incident in question.  It is human nature to want to experience the intense emotions of a tragedy at a remove—but is this news or exploitation?  Interviewing family members of a crime or accident victim or of a suspect of a crime gives the news consumer a rush of emotion, but does not actually convey truth.  No friend or family member will ever admit to the prying public anything but good about their loved one, even if they secretly know better; and using their grief to sell news is deplorable.  Such sentiments help to muddy the waters of truth and can shape public opinion more firmly than any cold, hard facts can do.

But even eye-witnesses to an incident are not really reliable conveyers of truth.  When my husband investigates an accident or a crime, he might interview dozens of witnesses to the event, but he inevitably gets dozens of different stories, many of them conflicting one another.  There is a reason more than one witness is required for the Old Testament law to convict someone of a serious crime.  Any one witness sees only one facet of an event from only one vantage point.  And it is a fact of human psychology that when information is missing in what a person experiences, the brain fills in the blanks as best it can.  The witness is not deliberately lying—he or she honestly believes what they are saying.  But an experienced investigator learns to take anything a witness states with a grain of salt, comparing accounts to find common factors.  Test this for yourself—ask someone who lived through a traumatic or emotional experience with you to describe the event and take note of how differently he or she remembers it.

Moreover, investigators know that forensic evidence is more truthful than anything a witness may say.  DNA samples and blood spatter and fingerprints and skid marks can’t lie or forget or fancify the facts.  But these pieces of cold, hard evidence take time to collect and analyze accurately, and the press and the public have no patience with it.   Building a picture of the truth can take months of careful work—and don’t we want investigators to do their jobs properly?  We should desire truth no matter how long it takes to discover—but the media wants sensation and wants it now.

Here is an example of a news article based entirely on eye-witness accounts of an incident which was completely inaccurate in every detail.  We can all remember the shock and fear that followed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  So imagine, just few days after commercial flights were allowed to return to normal, the sensation of a news report of a Middle-Eastern terrorist who forced a flight to land in Pennsylvania after a “violent altercation with the flight crew”.  The man was arrested upon the plane’s landing and taken quickly away, leaving only a stunned and terrified group of passengers for reporters to glean information from.  The airline refused to comment on the event other than to commend its crew for responding correctly to the incident, and the crew itself was not allowed to speak to the press.  The man in question was not named in the article, but a picture was taken of him and published with the article.

Two years later, my husband and I found ourselves the hosts to this unfortunate man, indeed a very large and imposing-looking Middle-Eastern male, who had just been released from a mental institution and was lost, unable to understand what was happening to him or what he should do next.  This “Middle-Eastern male” was, in fact, an Israeli immigrant, and so simple-minded and sheltered from society that he did not understand how money worked or how to find his family.  Moshe had literally been raised in a synagogue in Tel Aviv—we took him to a park for a picnic one day, and he admitted he had never spent any amount of time out of doors.  I asked him what sorts of trees grew in Tel Aviv, and he didn’t know—he couldn’t remember having seen any!  His mother had always taken care of him, bringing him with her to Florida when she emigrated.  But then she died, and her friends put the poor guy alone on a plane to send him to relatives on the other side of the country.  Moshe had never traveled alone before and was petrified.  He had a panic attack and tried to open the door to escape his terror—hence the “violent altercation.”  He had not harmed anyone, but had been difficult to control, and so the pilot had prudently landed at the nearest airport in order to get Moshe into the care he obviously needed.  He was compliant as a lamb as the police took him gently into protective custody and transported him to a mental institution.

It is completely understandable that the passengers on that flight were afraid of Moshe, describing him as hostile and dangerous.  He had been loudly vocal in his terrified panic, but since no one could understand his words they were interpreted as threats rather than pleas for help.  I would have been frightened in their place.  But the passengers did not have any of the facts—they had only their feelings.  And poor Moshe was decried as a terrorist on their word alone.

Which brings me to my last point:



Knowing intimately how investigations work, my husband and I refuse to form opinions on any newsworthy event until all the evidence is presented.  But reserving opinion in today’s world is considered a lack of empathy or some sort of anti-social behavior.  However, there is no merit in forming an opinion on any subject until all of the facts are known.  The press drives the emotions of the public to a frenzy with quotes from persons who were not present at an incident at all, or from eye-witnesses who nevertheless have no first-hand knowledge of the truth.  The public seems oblivious to the fact that observing an event at a remove, with no knowledge of the persons involved or of the events leading up to the incident, is fairly useless in getting at the truth; they seem equally oblivious to the fact that statements from persons who were not even present at the event are completely irrelevant.

It’s a sin in today’s emotion-driven world to have no opinion on a matter.  Worse, it’s a sin not to be outraged by events that the media deems worthy of outrage.  Persons who remain cool-headed in the face of an explosive event and try to discern actual evidence logically are perceived as trying to defend an alleged perpetrator whom the press has already tried and convicted, or as being coldly indifferent to the sufferings of the alleged victims.  But there seems to be no passion left for the truth itself.  When the forensic evidence contradicts the conclusions the media had already herded the sheep-like public into, the outrage increases.  Truth is no longer important—the perceptions formed by the press, drawn before there had yet been time to properly investigate the truth, becomes reality to the rage-drunk consumers of media.

And why?  Because outrage sells, and so the media eagerly milks every possible reason to create outrage.  And the consumers drink deeply of it, because being outraged feels like doing something important and joining the outrage of others feels like being a part of something bigger than oneself.  It becomes almost a religion.  And yet, no matter how much it feels like doing something, it actually accomplishes nothing of merit.  Outrage is a violent and mindless destructive force, lashing out blindly, harming everyone in its path.  And when its emotional impact is spent, the press finds some other event to exploit.

Has the media ever reported simple facts without fanning the flames of emotion to get the public response it desires?  I don’t know.  But if we want to use the media wisely, we must constantly be seeking truth, not sensation.  And truth is sometimes very hard to come by.


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Consuming the Media Wisely: Part Three

In my last post, I discussed the unreliability of the press as journalists rush stories to print without checking facts and invent “facts” when truth takes too long to uncover.  Often this is simply sloppiness and impatience—sometimes it’s something much more damaging and calculating.

But untruths in the press are not always entirely the fault of the reporters and fact-finders.  Sometimes it’s the powers-that-be who are at fault, providing press releases for media that are less than veracious.



“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression,” read the headlines of the Washington Post on August 5, 1964.  As a result of this reported attack on our navy in Tonkin Gulf, President Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes on North Vietnam.  But the report was not true—there had been no attack on our navy in the Tonkin Gulf.  Relying entirely on Government press releases, the media spread deception designed to escalate the war with the full acquiescence of the American people.  It later came to light that journalists of the day had considerable information which contradicted the official accounts, but this information was never used.  It wasn’t until December of 2005 that the documents outlining the truth of this incident were officially declassified and made available to the public.

In this case, the media was not to blame for the dissemination of false information, although had they drawn from other sources than the official ones some truth might have been made known.  Asking pertinent questions might have helped to alter events—who knows, perhaps public outcry might have brought the war to end much sooner.

But not all press releases have global consequences.  Sometimes there are consequences only for one average American family.  Here’s a personal account of how the media completely misrepresented a terrifying accident in my own family.

My husband works at an airport and is trained to be both a police officer and a crash/fire/rescue emergency worker.  While most of his week is spent in law enforcement, once or twice a week he is assigned to a truck in the fire hall and responds to aircraft emergencies.    One night, responding to a potential crash site, he drove his 40 ton truck out of the fire bay and as he turned onto the runway it began to tip and groan; and then, off-balance, it crashed on its side, its momentum nearly causing it to roll completely over.  Every bit of glass in the structure shattered even before impact, and if my husband had not been wearing his safety belt he would have been flung out of the side window and then crushed to death as the twisted metal landed on him.  As it was, he suffered internal injuries from the safety belt and from stress of impact, but was treated in the ER and released the same day.  I received that phone call from the chief that every wife of police officers dread, but for bad news, it was better bad news than it could have been.  We felt blessed that the accident had been no worse.

And then the morning paper came out.

The upshot of the article stated that my husband had been the driver in a single-vehicle crash, destroying an immensely expensive piece of airport equipment.  “Officer Ross has tested negative for alcohol; the drug test results are pending.”  And that was it.

Sounds pretty condemning, doesn’t it?  If you read that article, you’d have no doubt in your mind that the accident was due to recklessness on my husband’s part, probably the result of drug-use on the job.  It wasn’t entirely the fault of the reporter who wrote this damning bit of news—police officers are not permitted to speak to the press, and so the reporter had to rely on the airport’s Public Relations Department for information.  And the airport was very happy to allow my husband to take the blame for the accident.

A little digging, however, would have provided just enough additional information to at least allow a bit of doubt to be cast on my husband’s culpability in the incident.  Alcohol and drug testing are standard procedure in any accident and regulations required the tests be done—but no one at the airport ever even considered that my husband might actually have been under the influence of anything.  Furthermore, the video camera’s footage from inside the truck itself showed that it had been proceeding at only 14 miles per hour at the time of the accident—hardly reckless driving.  The resulting investigation into the accident showed that the airport had (against the manufacturer’s warning) enhanced the vehicle with a  two-ton boom for spraying fire-deterrent foam, making the truck top-heavy and increasing the weight on the suspension—but did not reinforce the suspension to accommodate the increased weight.  Naturally, the suspension weakened and eventually collapsed, nearly killing my husband as it did so.

It was difficult enough as a family to deal with an accident which could so easily have been fatal, without also having to ward off accusations of culpability in the accident.  Our children were old enough to understand what was happening, and it was very upsetting to us all.  The press is very happy to assume that a police officer is at fault when an incident occurs—and it is not inclined to take the time to investigate the possibility that someone else might have been at fault.  Journalists also never seem to take into consideration the families of police officers and how false reports might affect them.



Numbers and graphs always seem to lend an element of veracity to an article—after all, numbers don’t lie. Mark Twain would disagree, and he famously quoted Benjamin Disraeli to prove it:  “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  Anyone who actually deals with statistics for their livelihood or who teaches statistics classes in university agrees that one can make statistics say anything one wants, whether it represents truth or not.

The fact is, statistics exist for the purpose of estimation—they were never meant to be taken as literal fact.  Stats track trends and help businessmen and governments make educated guesses, but they are never actually true.  Take a census for example.  In 2014, the population of the United States was reported to be 318,857,056.  Was that number ever at any point of time literally true?  Probably not, given the number of births and deaths that take place every moment of every day, and taking into account the number of uncounted, displaced persons on the streets; not to mention inevitable errors made by census takers.

Here’s another way to make statistics say two very different things.  Doctor A and Doctor B both work in the ER at the same hospital.  Forty-six percent of Doctor A’s patients die under his care.  Sixteen percent of Doctor B’s patients die under his care.  Which doctor would you rather have treat you if you have to go to the ER?  What if I told you that Doctor A is an expert in severe injury cases, and so all of the worst accident victims are placed under his care; the patients are dying when he gets to them, and yet 54% of them live because of his expertise.  Doctor B is new and inexperienced; he is given the easiest cases to treat, and yet 16% of his patients don’t make it.  Now whom do you want to be your doctor?  Numbers can only tell you just so much—the most important bits of information cannot be quantified with statistics.

One often sees two very different things compared in the press to make points, but false comparisons don’t represent reality.  For example, here’s a news report:  there are twice as many vehicle-related fatalities in the U.S. in one month than the U.K. sustains in an entire year.  Are drivers more careful in Great Britain?  Is it safer to drive there than it is to drive in the United States?  The fact is, there are 254 million vehicles registered in the United as compared to only 34 million in the U.K.  This reflects the great difference in the population of the two countries:  319 million in the U.S as opposed to 64 million in the U.K.  Estimated per capita, drivers in the U.S. are actually much safer than those in our mother country.

We’ve all seen those weasely advertising scams that say “up to 99% success rate” or “nine out of ten” whatever experts agree.  Hardly anyone considers when reading these stats that every percentage point from zero to 98 is “up to 99%”.  And as for the “nine out of ten” experts—who are these people?  How many experts were polled? Where did they live? How were the questions worded?  Was every response counted, or just the ones the pollsters liked?  So many variables!  How can we take such information seriously?

Frankly, numbers and statistics are fairly meaningless as they are normally used in the media.  The truth cannot be reduced to a number—reality is always so much more complicated than math.


Sorry—this project has grown into a huge production!  Part Four should finish this topic for me, and then I will rest easy.





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Consuming the Media Wisely: Part Two

I’ve lived a varied and interesting life which has given me the opportunity to get to know many different people of every possible social strata, political persuasion, and religious affiliation.  As assistant to one of the most high-profile lobbyists for medical reform in my state, I had many frank conversations with hospital administrators, high-end attorneys, state senators, and other “important” people in politics; as an educator, I’ve had enlightening conversations with grade school teachers, college professors, principals, and school administrators; as the wife of a law enforcement officer who also doubles as a crash/fire/rescue worker and emergency medical worker, I’m intimately familiar with a great number of police officers, EMT’s, fire fighters, parole officers, and other emergency and law enforcement personnel;  as an active member of our highly-diversified church and its outreach, I’m friends with persons of many different races, sexual preferences and political convictions, including former convicts, felons currently serving prison sentences, recovering drug addicts, social workers, immigrants from many different countries, professional musicians, important businessmen and women,  and just about anything else you can think of.  My husband and I have taken homeless people into our home and looked after them until they got on their feet and have taken poor children from the local projects on doctor’s visits, camping trips and other outings.  In other words, I have a fairly all-encompassing outlook on life in America and have been privileged to have had conversations with people from just about every possible walk of life.


You might think that there is very little that all of these people would have in common, and you would be mostly correct.  But there is one thing that every person from every occupation and social strata with whom I’ve ever conversed can agree upon whole-heartedly:  Every incident in which any of these various people have been involved and has been reported in newspaper or television has been completely misrepresented by reporters.  You might think I’m exaggerating, and I certainly wish I was.  But it is unfortunately true that whether I am speaking with a liberal lobbyist or a conservative businessman, a police officer or a convicted felon—they all complain about how any incident in which they have personal knowledge has been twisted in the press.


There are many reasons this may be true.  One would be a lack fact-finding on the part of the reporters.  Pressing deadlines and a demand for scoops on breaking news  cause reporters to take short-cuts and does not allow for the fact that it just takes time for truth to be uncovered.  Often, if the story is minor, there is no follow-up story to correct the mistaken assumptions and incorrect statements made in the initial report.  Another reason for haste is the popular idea that reserving judgement on any subject is some sort of mental or moral fault.  Opinions must be served up hot, in spite of the lack of any solid evidence upon which to base them.


Another reason is a dependence of reporters upon official releases from the heads of businesses and governments concerning an incident.  Naturally, these official releases seek to put the entity in question in the best light, and so many details are left out or even falsified, and “weasel words” are employed to this end.


A third reason is the over-dependence on “man-on-the-street” interviews instead of relying on factual evidence in an incident.  This lends the personal touch to any story, but usually gives a false impression of an event or simply fills a report with irrelevant information rather than simple truth.


A more subtle reason is the reliance on statistics and other numerical facts.  “Numbers don’t lie”—or do they?  Readers tend to take numbers at face value without questioning where these statistics came from and what they really mean.


Last, but most insidious, is the apparent need of today’s press to create outrage on every possible subject.  One can no longer simply read the newspaper or watch a news program on television—one must be pumped up with emotion about it, and the cheapest emotion to pump is anger.  Outrage sells!  Get people worked up about the news and they will buy it.


I would like to explore each of these phenomena with examples.  The hardest part about this is choosing which of the countless examples to use!  This is the reason it has taken me so long to write “Part Two” in this series!



“Genius detective proved to be a fraud.  I read it in the paper, so it must be true.  I love newspapers.  Fairy tales.  And pretty grim ones, too.”  If you are alive and aware of modern culture at all, you will recognize this quote as being from the super-criminal Jim Moriarty on the BBC television show “Sherlock”, spoken just before the defamed detective was forced to plunge to his death in disgrace.


Why was the general public so willing to accept a false report? Sherlock himself explained: “Everybody wants to believe it, that’s what makes it so clever.  A lie that is preferable to the truth. . . . He’s got my whole life story.  That’s what you do when you sell a big lie—you wrap it up in the truth to make it more palatable.”


But does this happen in real life?  According to my sources, I’m afraid it does!  In fact, it’s an American tradition that goes back to pre-Revolutionary times– to spin events in such a way as to form public opinion in a manner most suitable to those in control of the press.  Take, for example, the Boston Massacre.  Every school child knows that this tragic incident occurred when the evil Red Coats shot down innocent civilians for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  It’s in the newspapers of the day, so it must be true!  There’s even a woodcut by Paul Revere showing the events of that fateful day.  Never mind that Paul wasn’t present at this event—a picture is worth a thousand words!


The newspapers of the day reported this incident immediately, without benefit of any evidence other than the reports of a few obscure “witnesses” who later, it was proven, had not even been present at the time.  It was reported that the British soldiers had over-reacted to a few boys who were taunting them and throwing snowballs at them and shot into a crowd of innocents with that rather ridiculous provocation.  It was also reported that someone shouted “Fire” and that the soldiers then began to shoot into the helpless crowd.  Americans, already outraged by the presence of British military in “their” colonies, were quite ready to believe this actually quite unbelievable account.  And many American “patriots” egged the story on, wanting it to be true—after all, it made a perfect rallying point for their cause.  “See!  The British are evil and we must be rid of them!  They have no business being in America.”


Fortunately, not all of the patriots in the American colonies were so rabid in their cause that they could ignore the facts of the case.  John Adams, who later helped to write the Declaration of Independence and eventually became our second president, volunteered to represent the British soldiers who had been arrested for the murder of the five colonists who had died in the Boston riot.  He had a vested interest in stirring up the colonists against the British, but refused to compromise his integrity in that cause.  When he visited those soldiers in jail, he saw not a rabble of wicked murderers but a group of boys far from home, who had tried to do their jobs as best they could.  They had been tasked to guard the Customs House and were not permitted to leave their post for any reason.  Adams’ investigation uncovered a plot by a group of Americans—the city bells rang at 8:00 to rally about 100 men, who planned to attack the soldiers with clubs and sticks.  They found a single soldier guarding the Customs House and began throwing chunks of ice at him and hitting him with sticks and clubs.  He endured their attack without retaliating, but did call for reinforcements.  Twelve soldiers arrived to his defense and were also attacked with clubs and sticks.  And yes, snowballs were also thrown as reported!  And the word “Fire” was also uttered, it is true—it was an American sailor, one of twelve,  who shouted it, and his full sentence was “Why don’t you fire, you bloody backs?  Fire and be damned; we know you dare not!”  This, while beating the soldiers bloody with a club.


“Would it have been a prudent resolution in them, or in any body in their situation, to have stood still, to see if the sailors would knock their brains out, or not?” Mr. Adams asked in his final speech at the trail.  “Their clubs were as capable of killing as a (rifle) ball. . . .”  As you may imagine, all but two of these unfortunate soldiers were acquitted, and those two who were sentenced were convicted of manslaughter with mitigating circumstances and received a minimal sentence.


But this was not the way the trial was reported in the papers.  A riot started by American rabble rousers was consistently termed a “massacre”, as if the shootings had been unprovoked by unarmed men rather than self-defense on the part of the soldiers.  Even today, it’s very difficult to find the truth of these events because of the twisted and insidious way the newspapers handled it, and the use unprincipled patriots made of it—one of whom was John Adams’ own cousin.  Sam Adams took advantage of the public outcry to his own ends, speaking with authority on the events of that fateful night in spite of the fact that he had not been present at the time.  One must go to the transcripts of the trial itself, and to the private journals of those involved, to get at the truth.


And so began our American tradition of journalism, I’m afraid.  It really doesn’t get any better than this.  But sometimes it really isn’t the journalists’ fault that untruths are presented in the press.  On to Point Two in Part Three of this series!








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Consuming the Media Wisely

I have been teaching writing courses to high school students for many years.  There are many things about this job that I enjoy–well, come to think of it, there are really no aspects of this job that I don’t enjoy!  But one of my favorite units to teach is journalism.

Naturally, we spend some weeks analyzing news articles and learning the basic structure and techniques of news-writing.  Then I give them an assignment:  they must write their own newspaper article in proper form on an issue that deeply concerns them.  They may interview as many people as they like, but they must interview at least one person.  They must research their subject and give me their sources.  They usually pick a subject that they are passionate about and it’s always fun to read what they come up with.  Because, unbeknownst to them, there is a Part Two to this exercise.

After the students have handed in their papers and I have graded them, we talk about in what ways their biases on their subjects show through in their articles.  And then comes my favorite part.  I assign them to write another news article on the same issue, using the same interviews and the same research,  but from the opposite position.  I assure them that half-hearted attempts will not do–they must truly try to convince me of the opposite point of view.  Their reactions are always marvelously amusing!  They are certain that I’ve given them an impossible task.  I am the meanest teacher ever!

A  recent example is an Eagle Scout who had written of the virtues and importance of the Boy Scouts as an organization.  He had come up with some great examples and persuasive arguments as to Scouting’s vital role in helping to prepare young men for adulthood.  His article easily convinced me that the Boy Scouts of America is a wonderful institution.  So I had to grin at his crest-fallen face when I informed him that his next article must convince me that BSA is the very worst organization in the history of organizations! I had my work cut out for me to talk him out of his deep despair.  But after about twenty minutes of brain-storming together, he was actually excited about giving this assignment a try.

The second articles are inevitably better written than the first, obviously because the students must put a great deal more thought into the subject.  But the amazing part is, most of my students find this assignment great fun once they get over their initial panic.  Picking through the research to find facts that back their new point of view and taking their interviews apart to find quotes that agree is challenging and it makes them feel as if they have really accomplished something when they’ve finished.

Why do I give my students such a heinous assignment?  Well, obviously, to make them better writers, above all else.  But this exercise is designed to also make students better consumers of the news media.  From the time they take my class, they can no longer simply accept anything they read or hear in the news at face value.  Because, after all, if beginning students can turn the facts in either direction they choose, just think what a fully-trained professional journalist can do!

I am not a journalist myself, but I was trained in journalism in college and I am friends with persons who are or have been professionals in the news media.  Part of the learning process in writing in any news media, whether newspapers, magazines, television, or internet articles, is how to sift through the enormous amount of information available and pick out the bits that will support a particulate slant.  That news is biased is a given–it has to be!  How can any half-page news article or three-minute news story possibly cover all the available information?  How can a reporter possibly include every quote from every one of the dozens of people he or she interviewed? How can a news story cover every point of view available and still remain a reasonable length? It’s just a fact that the news must be filtered and cut down to a manageable size before it can be published or broadcast.  That’s just part of good writing:  keeping the news story from becoming unwieldy and unreadable and making certain it is both cohesive and coherent.  The only question is, through what viewpoint is it being filtered?  Once one knows the point of view, one can avoid being herded along into believing whatever the reporter in question wishes the consumer to believe.

But most Americans do not receive this training.  I’m dismayed by the passive acceptance by most of the population of whatever the news source of their choice feeds them.  Naturally, most Americans choose to receive their news from a source that agrees with their general outlook and with their politics.  It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they are receiving news that is tailored to their worldview.  This is true whether one watches Fox News or listens to National Public Radio or reads the Wall Street Journal.  The points of view are different, but they are necessarily there. I am not saying that this is a bad thing; it is, in fact, entirely necessary. But  the consumer needs to be constantly aware of it.  This is doubly true for sources on the internet.  At least in the newspaper business, there is (supposed to be) a code of conduct and a general consensus of standards the reporters are expected to follow.  But on the internet, anyone may write whatever they like about anything without fear of consequences.

How are we ever to get at the truth of an issue, given that the information our news sources feed us are incomplete at best ?  First of all, one must resign oneself to the sad fact that we probably won’t get at the whole truth of any current events in this lifetime.  Not only are the news media biased, they are relying on sources that are biased. The governments and businesses and individuals who give them official statements and quotations each have their own agendas.  And unfortunately, as we follow the career of a certain well-known newscaster, we must realize how easy it is for the reporters, on whom we rely  to give us accurate information, to lie to us.  I know–this is not helpful!  But isn’t it better to face the truth than to simply swallow whatever anyone wants to feed us without careful examination?

My suggestion is to consume our news from a wide variety of sources with various biases and pick out the areas in which they seem to agree.  If two opposing viewpoints concede that “x” is true, it may possibly be actually true!  I also suggest reading news from other sources outside of America.  Other countries’ media will be biased as well, but their biases will be different from an American’s bias.  Persons from outside our country often see our country’s issues in a clearer light, since they are not personally involved.   Conversely, it’s a good idea to get the news of a foreign country directly from a someone who actually lives in that country rather than relying solely on the viewpoint of a visiting reporter.  Finally, I suggest holding any “facts” presented in the media loosely, whatever the source.  Yes, this is a cynical viewpoint, but who has not read an article disproving a previously established “fact” which everyone believed for years and which is now proven false?

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it.  I am, I freely admit, biased in my opinion.

Coming soon:  Part Two–a more detailed rant–I mean, discussion– about specific news-reporting techniques!


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Hurry Up and Wait

I have just had the immense privilege of helping to care for my two-year-old grandson for a week.  It’s been a while since I’ve cared for a toddler, and I found myself pulling out ancient tactics and memories to help me keep up with the active little guy.  Hopefully, I taught him a few little things, like how to hug trees and the names of the flowers in the yard and how to play Calvinball with a plastic baseball bat and a rubber bouncy ball .(If you don’t know how to play Calvinball, you have not been reading the right comic strips . . . .)

He also taught me a few things, as well.

“MorMor, MorMor, MorMor!” he whined as I tried to scrape the last bit of yogurt from the nearly empty container. (He calls me MorMor, which is Swedish for “Mother’s mother”.)  It was time for breakfast.  He was starving!  And since he couldn’t see as high as the counter top, he had no idea that I was actually complying with his urgent request for yogurt as quickly as I could.  From his perspective, I was dawdling unforgivably, or even ignoring him altogether.  I tried to explain to him what I was doing, but he couldn’t hear me over his mantra of “MorMor, MorMor, MorMor!”

I didn’t mind.  I kind of like hearing his sweet little voice chanting my name.  But I knew that his frustration would be lessened if he would just listen to me.  Maybe not by much, but a bit.

And then, before serving him his breakfast, I needed to change his diaper and clean his snotty little face and hands.  To a toddler, this foray into hygiene was an entirely unnecessary delay and had nothing to do with getting what he wanted.

I know you all know where this is going.  How often do we bring our requests to God with all the patience and understanding of two-year-olds?  Chanting the same words over and over in our desperation, we can’t hear His calm, quiet voice assuring us that He has heard and is working on the solution to our problems.  With our limited perspectives and equally limited knowledge, we often feel He is ignoring us or at the very least taking an unconscionably long time about answering our prayers.  We can’t see all the work and preparation He is engaged in on our behalf, up there on His great counter top.

And then often, instead of just giving us what we think we need, He takes the time to prepare us for receiving it.  Like two-year-olds, we so often cannot understand the correlation between the preparation process and the desired end result, and so we resent it and often resist it with all our beings, struggling desperately against processes that are meant for our betterment.

Fortunately, God understands that we are all two-year-olds. Did I feel impatient with my grandson?  Of course not!  I know he’s two years old and I don’t expect him to act like an adult.  And God knows we are but dust.  I’m sure He smiles down at us as I smiled at my grandson, explaining to us in small words what we can barely grasp, knowing full well when we aren’t really listening, but continually trying to communicate His love to us all the same.

My little grandson, after being satisfied with a good breakfast, threw his sticky little arms around me and said, “Thanks, MorMor. I love you, MorMor,” and my heart melted.  I don’t need thanks, really.  I’d do anything for that little guy, even if he never responded to me; but those sweet words are a reward above silver and gold and all precious gems.

Easter proves that God will do anything for us.  Absolutely anything.  He doesn’t need our thanks or our love in return.

But doesn’t He deserve it?


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By Their Fruit You Shall Know Them: The Parable of the Pumpkin Patch

I have few and simple aspirations in this life–to raise my kids to know my Lord; to teach other kids to understand God’s Word; to write things that will be helpful to others; and to have a pumpkin patch.

Yes, I know, that’s a frivolous and irrelevant desire.  But there’s something deep within my soul that yearns for a garden full of lovely vines, great yellow flowers, and beautiful, round, orange pumpkins.  I have for the past three years attempted to achieve this humble goal.  The first year, my vines were devastated by a plague of squash bugs. I studied out the best ways to deal with insect pests and treated the ground accordingly.  The second year, my vines were sickened by blight and rotted away.  Again, I studied the problem and thought I had it licked.

Not one to give up easily, I again planted a pumpkin patch last spring.  I had received special heirloom seeds through a friend and I planted them with care, using all the knowledge I had gleaned from my past two, unsuccessful attempts.  Oh, and my dreams seemed to be coming to pass!  Lush, beautiful vines grew, luxuriant and healthy.  No thorny squash bugs appeared to threaten my garden, and no black or moldy signs of blight crept in.  Then the blossoms appeared, huge and yellow and wonderful.  I was filled with joyful anticipation–I would be harvesting pumpkins this year!  Pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pudding, decorations for our Sukkah during the Feast of Tabernacles, jack-o-lanterns for my kids.

Then the flowers dropped off and the fruit appeared.  Brown. Misshapen. Wrong.

It seems my heirloom seeds were not pumpkin seeds after all.  I had cultivated a healthy crop of butternut squash.

Okay, this is where my analogy inevitably falls down, because there’s really nothing evil about butternut squash.  I like butternut squash, and we ate butternut squash.  Lots of it.  All summer.  Because there was a lot of it.  If you want some, I’ll send them to you, because there’s a lot of them.

But when  what you really need are big, lovely, round, shiny, orange pumpkins, nothing else will do.

In Matthew 7:6, Jesus warns us, “By their fruit you will recognize them.  Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles?”  A horticulturalists could, I am sure, have told me that my seeds and my vines were not pumpkin seeds and pumpkin vines–but look at pictures of the two and tell me, could an ordinary person really tell the difference?  Well, I certainly couldn’t, until the fruit began to grow.  I’m afraid it’s the same with people.  It’s impossible, sometimes, to tell who is genuinely serving God out of love for Him and desire to serve Him, and who is serving for other purposes.  Sometimes it’s hard to discern the difference in ourselves.  The sincere pumpkin vines blend in with the butternut squash vines, and who can disentangle them before they begin to show their true natures through their fruit?

In Matthew 13, Jesus warns us again through the parable of the wheat and the tares.  He  planted good wheat in good ground, but the enemy planted tares in amongst the wheat.  These two plants look exactly alike until the wheat begins to form heads and bears good grain; the tares remain fruitless and are without use.  How to root out the tares without disturbing the fruitful wheat?  It can’t be done by human means, Jesus said.  Let them remain together until the end, and then He will Himself sort things out.  But in the meantime, He tells us to be discerning.  By their fruit you shall know them–we are not the judges, but we are responsible for being alert to deception, both in others and in ourselves.

So, what is this fruit we’re to be looking for?  John the Baptizer tells us to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8)  This is always a good measure for ourselves.  Are we truly repentant for our sins, or do we try to excuse them away or sweep them under the rug and hope no one (God!) will notice.

Paul tells us to be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God.”  (Philippians 1:11)  Are we living righteous lives through the power that Christ gives–lives that bring glory and praise to God?  Or are we trying to live good lives in our own strength, bringing glory to ourselves?  And again, in Colossians 1:10, Paul prays that we “may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.”  Are we continuing to strive to learn of Him?  Or are we complacent in our present knowledge, content with what we have rather than longing to go deeper?

“Being filled with the fruit of righteousness” and “bearing fruit in every good work”:  what are these righteous good works we’re to be cultivating?  Jesus tells us this Himself in John 6:29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom He has sent.”  Believing in Jesus is the foundation of bearing good fruit.  The little book of First John is all about the work God expects of us, and it boils down to two things: to “believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He has commanded us.” (1 John 3:23)

Believe in Jesus and love one another.  There’s the gospel in a pumpkin shell.  So what kind of fruit are we bearing?






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If God Wrote a Blog . . .

“Why do people die spiritually?” a friend of mine asked me recently, referring to believers who no longer seemed to want to be involved in the work of the church.  “What makes someone lose interest in spiritual things?”  I have also been musing on this subject for some time.  Coincidentally (or not!), the very nature of my relationship with this particular friend led me to a possible answer.

My friend and I met via an internet forum.  She lives half a world away, but we were brought together through a mutual admiration for each other’s work online and began to get acquainted through e-mail.  We then discovered each other’s blogs and began to read through the entries.  I quickly realized that, as much as I enjoyed getting to know my new friend through the almost instant methods of e-mail and private messaging, it was through her blog that I could really learn about her character, history, philosophy–her heart.  There I can come to understand more about who she was before we met, how she got to where she is today, how she interacts with others in her life.  I can’t talk to her face to face; we can’t sit down with cups of tea and have a heart-to-heart talk in person.  So I read her blog, and she reads mine, and this is how we each learn who the other truly is.

I hope the analogy I’m drawing here is clear.  I certainly believe that God speaks to us directly in our day-to-day lives, moving in our hearts and minds to guide us in an intimate and immediate way.  However, like the e-mails my friend and I exchange, this more direct communication generally addresses the concerns and events of the here and now.  In order to fully know God–His character, history, philosophy: His heart–I must study His blog.

Yes, my friends, God kept a blog for quite a long number of years.  Of course, the internet had not been invented when He started writing His blog.  He used the cutting edge technology of the day by dictating His entries to His various secretaries, who inscribed them on scrolls of parchment. These blog entries (we call them “books” today) purposed to tell the world who God is, describe His character, and explain His workings through history and through individuals as He strove to accomplish redemption for His creation.  The way to learn who God really is, therefore, would be to read His Word.

I believe that many Christians fall away from true faith because they neglect the one thing that would bring them more fully into it:  they fail to study God’s Word.  I know my friend will understand what I mean when I admit that, if our friendship were based solely upon our brief e-mails to each other, our relationship would be shallow and largely imaginary.  Without the insight of our blogs, we would have no foundation upon which to build a true representation of each other’s character.  We would be forced to rely on what little information we could glean through a few sentences or paragraphs and would most probably draw many wrong conclusions about each other’s motivations and philosophies.  We would, in fact, be inventing each other in our own minds based upon our own experiences and thought processes rather than actually learning the truth we reveal about ourselves through our written works.   After all, it is a fact that in order to truly know another person, one must see that person’s actions in many different circumstances and watch them interact with a wide spectrum of other people.  My friend and I cannot observe one another in person, but through our blogs we can “see” each other as we truly are.

When I asked my friend’s permission to use her as an example in this blog entry, she replied, “I would be honoured if you wanted to use me as an example. That’s why I’m on earth you know.”  Her answer brought to my mind another reason Christians may fall away from the faith when they do not study the Scriptures.  If you wanted to read an example of what living out the love and compassion of Christ looks like in this modern world, you need go no further than to read my friend’s blog!  She is daily living out her faith in tangible ways that brings hope and change to those around her.  And this is another purpose of God’s Word. In I Corinthians 10, Paul warns us to pay attention to the history of Israel. “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did,” he tells us in verse 6.  And again, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us,” he says in verse 11.  He was speaking of negative examples, of course, but there are many instances of positive examples and exhortations of how God wants us to live our lives throughout Scripture.  Unless we study His Word, we can only guess at what He wants for us and what He expects from us.

My friend told me a few days ago that she had been visited in person by another such internet acquaintance.  After a year of e-mails and reading one another’s written work, their first face-to-face meeting was perfectly comfortable.  She said it felt as if they’d known each other all their lives. Commenting on the analogy she knew I was attempting to write about in this blog entry, she concluded: “. . .like my friend from—–, when Jesus comes in person and I see Him face to face it will be like ‘old times’ and we will be completely comfortable in each other’s presence.” God forbid we should ignore the singular opportunity to get to know Him so personally through His revealed Word, so that we can indeed be comfortable in his presence when we see Him face-to-face at last!

“Why do people die spiritually?”  Well, I believe one reason is that they do not value God’s Word and pour over it as if their very lives depended on it.  This is more than unfortunate, because it really does.  It is the blog God gave to us as a direct line to His mind and heart. We neglect so great a gift to our own peril and detriment.



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