Editorial: Believe It or Not

Nov. 6-12 is Media Literacy Week, during which we are urged to focus on how we view, process and react to news and information.  Groups like the local Gateway Media Literacy Partners (www.gmlpstl.org) promote the importance of critical reading skills for both adults and children.

The job is a nonstop endeavor these days.  We’re bombarded with information in print and electronically, provided by both professionals and amateurs. It comes at us so fast and furiously that there’s barely time to take a breath, let alone ponder its worth and meaning.

But ponder we must, for if we accept all news at face value, we’re likely to adopt the messages that are delivered the loudest, the most relentlessly, and ultimately by those with the largest pot of resources. And that makes for a poor democracy indeed.

We see misinformation all the time. Falsehoods are bandied about with certitude. Opinions are passed off as facts. And the Internet can cause untruths to spread as quickly as wildfire.  The information network, which can be a wonderful thing for worldwide connectivity, has as its flipside a morass of bewildering detail.

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As adults and parents in the 24/7 Age, it’s our responsibility more than ever to be well-informed. And what does that mean, exactly? Hard to say, but at the most essential level, it’s (1) an individual duty to shape our opinions as much as possible on information upon which we can reasonably rely, and (2) a societal duty to insist on a marketplace that provides the means to obtain that information.

In the Jewish community in particular, we often have free-floating angst about the state of media affairs when it comes to Israel, and that concern, while both sincere and well-founded, is played upon by those who would purport to promote “accurate” information.  

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), for instance, is relentless in its assault on perceived bias against, and condemnation of, Israel in the mainstream news. CAMERA’s recent full-page ad in Commentary magazine chastised the New York Times for what it viewed as serious omissions of Palestinian actions and words that showed substantial hostility toward Israel.

There’s no question that CAMERA plays a valuable literacy role in calling out all sorts of media misstatements and omissions that inure to Israel’s detriment. But CAMERA itself makes value judgments that might not be shared by all Israel lovers.  For instance, its recent portrayal of the John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer,” performed here in June by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, as an example of “anti-Israel propaganda,” wanders toward selective, subjective opinion not shared by all Jews or Israel supporters.  

In another recent example relating to Israel and media literacy, the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee put out a statement encouraging a pledge among American politicians for unified, bipartisan support for Israel.

The somewhat inartful piece was jumped on by those who saw it as an effort to discourage debate by political parties and candidates about their stances on American policy toward the Jewish State.

Some critics saw the statement as an attempted limiter on free speech, citing a longstanding open debate in this country about Israel support tactics. Others rather ironically used their opposition to the statement to achieve their own political objectives.  

After the storm clouds gathered, the two groups issued clarifying statements to explain the intention of the original message. Next thing you know after that, detractors of the statement expressed satisfaction that the organizations were withdrawing the original statement. But not so fast-subsequent statements issued by ADL clarified that the revised statement was only a clarifying statement and not a withdrawal.

This particular episode is a great study in media literacy.  How you perceived the issue depended on many factors-at which point you as a reader entered the fray; your political proclivities; and your substantive views on free speech, Israel, the organizations involved and those who publicly responded.

You may be saying to yourself, gee, this is really hard, and you’re right – it is. It’s challenging to be an informed world citizen, an informed Israel loyalist, an informed anyone about anything, in this day and age.  The good news is, there are more media (and other) information resources than ever before. The bad news is, getting through it all to reliable data upon which to shape your views can be like finding the proverbial needle.

We strongly encourage efforts to help both adults and children in learning to read, think and act critically so as to be responsible and participating members of the global village.  We can reject spoon-fed information in favor of thoughtful analysis.  Or we can accept inaccurate and distorted information as our pabulum. The choice is ours.