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Handling the Truth

Handling the Truth

Authority and Power, what is true and who decides?  The tension between them lies at the root of many (all?) church controversies even unto our own day.  On its website, the Australian TV network ABC has posted an editorial on issues of Authority and Power in Anglican debates over full inclusion of LGBT persons and the ways in which the Truth gets battered.

A power struggle over the authority to adjudicate the “truth of the Gospel” is developing within the transnational Anglican Communion.

Fuelling this emerging stand-off is a tendency to exaggerate the shortcomings of one’s opponent, to the point of engaging in character assassination. The internet has become a powerful tool in this rhetorical battle, but with the consequence that truth is often being compromised for truthiness.

The editorial looks primarily at the work of Anglicans Unscripted, a weekly video-blog produced by video journalist Kevin Kallsen, together with George Conger (an Episcopal priest from Central Florida) and their alleged tendency to deal loosely with facts.

On occasion, however, they display a tendency to cross the line, not only between journalism and advocacy, but also between truth and truthiness.

The editorial offers several examples, which are well worth reading, that highlight the ways in which Anglicans Unscripted plays fast and loose with facts in order to present stories that are sympathetic to their perspective.

Given this evidence, I can only describe the reporting of Anglican Unscripted on this event as an example of truthiness. To being with, when I first watched Conger tell his story, I had the impression that this was a first-hand account. He tells it like he was there. But after watching the video a number of times, I noticed that he quickly mentions in an aside that “we’ve had various reports from this, from half a dozen people.” So Conger is actually summarizing what other people have told him about the dinner.

This being the case, I am not questioning the honesty of George Conger; I am simply highlighting that he did not check his facts, which were available to be checked. The concept of truthiness captures this relative disinterest in confirming the details of a situation when a story “feels right.”

The other way the reporting edges on the side of truthiness is how the subject of the story is mocked while the situation is being described. This is a style of narrative driven by an emotive and polemical tone, rather than careful attention to detail and nuance. Justin Welby is a northerner who had just flown in to Kenya from the United Kingdom the previous evening: is it so odd that he might need to wear sunglasses while sitting outside for lunch in Nairobi? The sympathy of the story-teller is not with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that tone shapes the way the story is told. Moreover, it is clear that whoever summarized the speech to George Conger was more interested in communicating an emotional tone and certain values, rather than the specific details of what was said.

We run into issues like this at the Café regularly.  People often contact us to demand we run a particular story or to ask why we aren’t telling what “really” happened.  Sometimes, we discover commenters using false names or trying to comment under several names at once (FYI: this is fairly easy for us to work out) in order to change the perception of reality.  Getting the facts right, covering the issues fairly, and admitting our biases are important values for our work here and defining the line between telling the truth and advocating for a cause isn’t always clear but we do try to keep an eye out for it.

The Editorial closes with a call to all of us who participate online to be discerning readers (and producers) and demand truthfulness and not truthiness.

To note this is not to urge the church to adopt a Luddite attitude and shun the blogosphere. But the propensity of new media treatments of controversial issues to slide into the realm of truthiness is a significant danger that requires greater attention and scrutiny. More public discussion of this problem in the church is needed, and I would hope that Christians will learn to be better critical readers of the blogosphere.

If the internet is indeed to be a site of Christian “witness,” then greater attention and care must be taken, by all involved, and greater reflection devoted to discerning what such a call to “witness” entails in the blogosphere. If indeed “the medium is the message,” then how Christian witness is presented will do much to shape its content. Defending the “truth of the Gospel” is not well served by the preaching of “truthiness.”


posted by Jon White


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Rod Gillis

Here is an interesting perspective on the freedom of speech angle, or its continuing demise, from the CBC Washington corespondent. He references, at one point, how left of center activists promote conformity to group think at the expense of freedom of speech.

John Chilton

Archbishop Cranmer links Brittain’s op-ed, giving their post “the malign spin against Justin Welby.”

JC Fisher

“when I first watched Conger tell his story, I had the impression that this was a first-hand account. He tells it like he was there. But after watching the video a number of times, I noticed that he quickly mentions in an aside that “we’ve had various reports from this, from half a dozen people.” So Conger is actually summarizing what other people have told him about the dinner.”

Oh my goodness, Conger is doing a “Bill O’Reilly”! [Billo, of FOX News, having been busted doing this a bunch of times].

But the fact is, it IS fairly easy for memories to change over time—to imagine (called “remember”) being in a time/place/situation where one was not. Heavens preserve the sanctity of our memory vaults! [Or make us humble when we get it wrong.]

John Chilton

Kevin and George present themselves as journalists. They have a responsibility to be factual even within their spin.

It’s not a failure of memory. They have fallen for their own spin.

My concern is that the consumers of the “news” appear to follow the sources that reinforces their beliefs without consulting alternative takes. I say this not just of the right.

Rod Gillis

“We are all mediators, translators.” –Jacques Derrida

Professor Christopher Seitz

Well known people–as opposed to those whose names mean little in terms of public recognisibility or accountability–often encounter obvious prejudice and censuring. This is simply the price one pays for the partisan character of all reporting these days. One must accept it and do the best one can.

David Streever

I assume that important, well-known people, who by definition have platforms on which their views are shared, are more likely to be censured for their ideas because their ideas have disproportionate strength and can inflict more harm.

Censure, the expression of official disapproval, certainly seems more appropriate when used by an institution to reduce harm from people who wield authority. Would you rather it the other way, that institutions expressed disapproval of marginal people who don’t wield authority? I’m not sure that there is a compelling argument in favor of that view; it seems to run counter to every Christian idea of human power & authority that exists.

I assume you’re responding in context regarding this very site. I also think you might have meant censoring, not censuring. Censoring is the practice of official suppression of information. The voices we moderate are not expressing new information, and their ideas are familiar to everyone. Removing redundant comments and repetitive opinions is not ‘suppressing’ information. The aim of any news outlet is to share new ideas and experiences; if they allowed comments which dismissed & attacked those new ideas to dominate the discourse, it would undermine the point of news.

Professor Christopher Seitz

It was intended as a general comment. If it applies here, fine.

If one gives ones name, it opens one up to an entire series of comments disparaging one’s larger work, and the point of the thread gets lost.

I hope you will post this and not bin it.

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