Greg Garrett: Information, Misinformation, and Missed Information: A Decade after 9/11

Sources and Resources

I used to teach Freshman Composition, and I still teach undergraduates, graduate students, and future priests and preachers about finding, assessing, and using sources. In the old days, I had to encourage students not to rely too much on encyclopedias; later it was telling them to carefully assess information found on the web; then it was encouraging them not to rely on Wikipedia as a sole source. Even with bright students it was a challenge to get them to do good research, and only the rare and lovely writer, then or now, thought that thorough research was an important and worthy goal.

In some ways, America is like a big Freshman Comp class: it thinks it already knows what it wants to write about, it is mostly looking to find sources that confirm that knowledge, and it tends to avoid or ignore anything that might complicate what it thinks it knows. How else to account for the fact that two years after 9/11, seven out of ten Americans believed Saddam Hussein, a secular dictator, was directly involved in the Islamic extremist attacks on New York and Washington? As USA Today reported, a "majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe it's likely Saddam was involved. . . . The belief in the connection persists even though there has been no proof of a link between the two."

In June of 2007, despite the fact that it had been widely reported that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, a Newsweek poll reported that over 40 percent of Americans still believed there was. And soldiers on the ground in Iraq believed it overwhelmingly! A Zogby poll in 2006 found that 85 percent of soldiers believed they were there to "to retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9-11 attacks."

In the present day, this continuing lack of information-or misinformation-is reflected in Americans who fear sharia law and Muslims themselves, although they may not know what sharia law is or know even a single Muslim. The recent events in Norway remind us that Islamophobia is not an American preserve, although certainly we have our share of it. Jon Stewart properly ridiculed presidential candidate Herman Cain the other day for his misunderstanding of both Islam and the U.S. Constitution, when Cain told Fox News that communities can absolutely ban mosques, since Islam is all about the mingling of church and state.

The days of what Stephen Colbert called "truthiness," acting as if something is true because you want it to be, clearly did not end with the Bush presidency. The country is still full of people who believe things that aren't true because they don't know any better-or don't want to know any better.

And as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, so many issues are still in play-our relationship with Islam, our understandings of geopolitics, even our readings of our own Constitution!-that clearly it's worth having a talk about how to find out what's true and what's false, and to judge our news sources so that we can use them responsibly to be thoughtful and informed citizens.

Conversation and Contact

Sadly, our most basic way of learning things seems next to impossible these days. Human intelligence-the simple act of conversation and interaction-is, for most of us, limited to people who are mostly like ourselves. In a land of gated communities, we gate up our lives, surrounding ourselves, to the extent that this is possible, with people like ourselves in our schools, churches, and communities. And as is typical of walled communities, the walls are intended to create distance, to wall someone out.

Our society has largely fragmented into smaller, more homogeneous groups, and our chance to meet, interact with, and learn from, someone radically different from ourselves may be rare or nonexistent. That's why I value my Facebook feed, made up, as it is, of people I've known my whole life, readers, and fellow theologians from around the world, of conservatives and liberals, professional Christians and devout atheists. When I pay attention to the threads of this diverse conversation, I get to step out of my gated community, hear from people who are not exactly like me, and wrestle with why I hold my own thoughts and opinions.

But meeting someone who differs from you may still be the best way to learn something new. My friends the Powells just got back from NYC, and my friend Lizzie told me about the interaction between 8-year-old Walker and their Pakistani cab driver. Walker had it in his head that eating a hot dog from a street vendor was an essential New York experience, and so he asked their driver if he liked hot dogs.

"I cannot eat hot dogs because of my religion," the driver said, and he went on to explain to Walker that his food must be prepared in a special way, according to the dictates of his faith, "and hot dogs probably aren't." In the course of that cab ride, Walker heard from this gentle man about his childhood in Pakistan and his loving grandfather, who still lives in Pakistan, and he got to encounter a Muslim not as a boogieman or an enemy, but in conversation.

It's still one of the best ways to learn from others who they actually are-talking to them.

Get Out of the Echo Chamber

A byproduct of our gated communities is that we tend to hear over and over again what we already believe to be true. And if our primary news source tells us only what we already believe, it is doing us a disservice, and this is as true with Fox News as it is with MSNBC, as true in some ways whether you listen to Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow. I know you can argue that Maddow is a journalist and Beck an entertainer, or that MSNBC has more stringent journalistic requirements than Fox, and I would be sympathetic to those arguments. But the truth is that if either is your sole source of news (and this is also true of TV and radio call-in shows and left- or right-wing blogs), you are limited in what you know and what you hear to what you want to know and hear.

I happen to think most of what Keith Olbermann says is true. But how do I know it's true? Because I get out of the echo chamber and read.

In England, during my writing residencies at the Gladstone Library, I look forward to reading the papers at the end of the day. The Library gets a number of papers; there's The GuardianThe IndependentThe TimesThe Telegraph. Each has its own editorial slant, its own particular focus. The Guardian, my favorite, is a lefty investigative newspaper; The Times is (or was) the paper of the Establishment; The Independent proudly flaunts its independence from any political party.

Each covers stories in a slightly different way, with a different slant, and often one helps me understand a situation in ways the others don't. If I read only The Guardian, although it is a great paper, I would miss out on other approaches and I'd fail to see what the larger debate might be about.

Read, Watch, and Listen

Likewise it's important to employ different forms of media. Although I'm a professional writer working in the fields of religion, politics, and culture, and thus I need to be a little better informed than your average bear, I've always believed it was necessary for Americans to be better informed than they are. How else can we know what to think, how to vote, what causes to support?

So I'll offer this list of news sources I consult-and I hope comments might add or debate these publications and media sources-that might offer a wealth of approaches to the news and issues of the day. I think it's important first to read news daily, at least. For me, that means consulting great newspapers: The GuardianThe Washington PostThe New York Times. I read them on the web, I don't read them in their entirety, and I do tend to focus on issues I'm following, but I always get sidetracked, and read more than I intended, and that's probably a good thing.

Since I don't watch TV news daily, I do tend to listen to the radio. In the U.S., I listen to National Public Radio, and BBC Radio if it's available. In each of these categories, an international news source helps to give a different perspective on issues. Network news and CNN might round out your news viewing, and shows like Fresh Air, The Bob Edwards Show, or Religion and Ethics Weekly might add a tighter focus on an issue or newsmaker.

Since issues often develop over days, weeks, and even months, I read newsmagazines. Every week I read Time and The Economist, and I sometimes read Newsweek and The Nation as well. I also like to read articles in the New YorkerHarpers, and Mother Jones, magazines that do terrific investigative journalism.

I also like to watch The Daily Show, which does a great job of detecting lies and screening the news, in an entertaining way. But, as Jon Stewart would be the first to admit, it is a comedy show, not a news show, although it serves a useful function as B.S. detector.

I also watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. Not much. But not never.

I read the National Review. I listen to right-wing talk shows, for as long as I can stand to. I read conservative blogs and articles from the Washington Times, although I don't think it's a very good paper, because there are thing in theTimes I don't find in the Post, or anywhere else, for that matter.

I read articles from al Jazeera, which is actually a really fine news organization.

And in doing so I step out of my white liberal Christian ghetto and listen to the world.

I don't always like or agree with what I find out there, but I learn what concerns people, what scares people, what angers people.

And, I hope, I learn a little bit about how I might talk to them so we can get back to that place of authentic conversation and contact.

Next week, I'll talk about the other dimension of my work, reading the Bible and studying theology as they apply to the world, and I'll suggest methods and resources that may help us better come to grips with the religious and ethical problems of our post-9/11 world. Until then, my prayer for us is that the God who is the source of Truth and Knowledge will bless our attempts to know the truth so that we may serve Him better, and that we may love and forgive each other even when we understand the truth differently, for we often do.

See you next week.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal at Patheos.comSubscribe via email or RSS.


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[Taken with permission of the author. Originally posted 8/3/11]