September 18, 2020

Joe Rogers: You can’t handle the truth

A Mississippi legislator, stung by a newspaper column, has taken it upon himself to bring “objective truth” to the people of the state.

Well, good luck with that.

The legislator, Rep. Andy Gipson of Braxton, says the column mischaracterized his reason for killing a House bill that would have added domestic violence as a cause for divorce.

So he has launched the Mississippi Responsible Journalism Initiative, through which he intends to call out journalists who stray.

“(T)he standard we intend to apply is the same basic standard applied to businesses under state and federal securities laws,” he told me in an email message. “The standard is whether a journalistic statement or article contains a ‘materially false or misleading statement.’

“Our only goal is to support the return of honest, ethical journalism, and we believe this will help foster the return of civil debate in our state.”

As a journalist who spent more than 40 years trying mightily to avoid getting things wrong (and not always succeeding), I appreciate the initiative’s goal.

It’s just that I don’t think many people want facts or truth anymore.

What they want is some kind of storyline that supports what they already believe to be true. Or want to be true.

It’s readily apparent. People post or repost bogus assertions on social media every day without ever bothering to check the validity of the claims, just because it suits their preconceived notions.

And I’m not talking about opinion; I’m talking about flat-out bull. I’ve all but given up trying to police it. The posters don’t care; and I come off like a know-it-all. Or jerk.

Expecting people to care about truth these days is like expecting good spelling and grammar in a tweet. A quaint notion. Outdated.

It hasn’t always been this way. But this country has become so polarized that it’s hard to get two people from different sides of the political divide to agree on whether it’s raining at any given moment, much less on climate change, say.

One man’s “facts” are another man’s “fake news.”

The Facebook page for the group is soliciting nominations for transgressors:

“As a grassroots organization, we are in need of Mississippi volunteer citizens in each corner of the state to be the eyes and ears of MRJI, scouting the mainstream media and online journalistic landscape for false or misleading statements.”

Gipson, a Republican, says he’ll be backed by a committee consisting of “a very diverse group of people with a unique set of skills in identifying and communicating factual information.” He plans to announce their names next month.

I’ll be particularly interested to see the names and qualifications of the people on the committee. How politically diverse will they be? What will give them credibility as arbiters of truth?

Gipson speaks of using the standards applied in securities law. But the attorney in him should know that court proceedings don’t produce truth, only verdicts subject to appeal. The legislator in him should know that every utterance contains an element of spin.

And the Baptist minister in him should know that even the Bible serves up some alternative facts.

So as I said, good luck with delivering that objective truth thing. But don’t anybody hold your breath.

Joe Rogers worked for The Clarion-Ledger, The Tennessean and The New York Times. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com or on Twitter @jrogink.