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Peskin Op-Ed: The bell test

The reading of “The Polar Express” is a cherished family tradition. On Christmas Eve, my grandchildren pile on my lap as I read the story in my best storyteller voice. We consider friendship, bravery and the spirit of Christmas in a magical journey to the North Pole. When the final page is turned, I ring a silver bell and ask whether they heard the reassuring sound of believing.

This season, above all others, a lot of people deny the bell, refusing even to listen for the sound. “Fake” is the metaphor they prefer, decrying uncomfortable realities with strident beliefs founded on what they want to believe rather than what is so.

To mix story metaphors, it feels like a Grinch has stolen Christmas.

Taking their lead from the American president, partisans and politicos accuse legitimate news organizations -- including this one -- of publishing "fake" stories. The phrase "fake news" has become a popular colloquialism used to criticize any news that a person doesn't like.

There's a more accurate phrase: It’s called confirmation bias. It's the tendency not to perceive circumstances objectively, to embrace information that supports a position and reject information that contradicts it.

There is danger in this far beyond the wolves that chase “The Polar Express.” Belief is under assault.

We all seem to have different definitions for what the cynical call fake news, but most of us seem to agree that it’s a problem. According to a recent poll, 64 percent of adults say fake news causes confusion about current issues and events. Meanwhile, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, only 39 percent of American adults say they feel “very confident” that they can recognize credible stories.

In American society, trusted and informed storytellers exist to dispel distortions of the truth. But currently even our best news organizations are targets of those who would distort the difference between facts and fake.

The danger is great for American democracy. Listen to Hannah Arendt, a German-American political theorist who observed the phenomenon when she fled Nazi Germany as Adolf Hitler rose to power.

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought),” Arendt writes in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” a treatise oft-cited in a current political thought.

In such a context, repeated, simplified and false storylines such as tweets are preferred over deeper analysis leading to informed opinions.

America continues to stand as a nation of values and ideas, but its foundations are under attack. For nearly four centuries, this metaphor has represented the belief that in a free, honest, and transparent competition, the best ideas always win. In democratic societies, freedom of expression, which encompasses freedom of speech and of the press, draws its protection from that belief.

These days, the threat of fake stories puts those ideas in peril. For the marketplace of ideas to work well, consumers must know who provided the available information, how they obtained it, and whether the information is substantiated through journalistic process. That is what news organizations do.

The democratization of media is a wondrous event in contemporary society. But while it may make publishers of everyone, it does not make everyone credible.

In this season, “The Polar Express” gives us reason to believe in the power of stories. On Christmas Eve, I will again gather my grandchildren to my lap and read to them about believing. I will look into their eyes and to their hearts as I read the final paragraph about a gift from Santa at the North Pole -- a lost bell that rings with belief:

“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

Dale Peskin is the executive editor of the Loudoun Times-Mirror.


Resident of Ashburn Farm - You will always have fringe groups and there is nothing you or anyone else can do about it. This editorial though paints it as the Nazis are at the gates of all our cities.

More FAKE news….

Courtroom overload - Ask the family of the couple murdered in Reston by a neo-nazi sympathizer if they believe in the threat from what you call a “dead idea”

Had to get a Nazi reference in just to make sure. You call yourself a journalist, do you honestly believe that we are in threat from a dead idea?

Hannah Arendt was a communist dupe

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