“A lie travels half-way around the world before the truth gets its pants on.”
That quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, to Winston Churchill, and a host of other equally adept minds who knew how to wordsmith. We will probably never find out who the real author of these words was, but it is an undeniable fact that these words have never been so current.
As the latter part of 2023 seems intent on going out with a bang, the lies, whether intentional, benign, or the result of lazy reporting, continue their world tour. The insatiable need people have to “know” has been driving history since the time news headlines were etched in stone by a hammer and a chisel.
When the Greek army defeated an invading force, they felt compelled to send Pheidippides on a 26-mile run so he could yell to the people of Athens at the top of his lungs, “We won!” Poor Pheidippides may have also been the first news agency casualty, as tradition tells us that after his excited proclamation, he keeled over and died.
From something as grim and important as a war in the Middle East to something as important to Catholics around world as the synod in Rome, we are literally being bombarded with “news” reports and firsthand accounts of events that in a few short days prove inaccurate, over or under emphasized, or just untrue. Consuming news is now equivalent to digesting ghost peppers, with usually the same end result.
To compound the problem, we now have an internet where information, good, bad, irrelevant, and bogus, lives forever. When a recent news report about a college student protesting the current awfulness happening in Israel and Gaza proclaimed to a reporter that her opinion on the issue was the result of a six-hour Google search of the topic, I was slightly dubious. I think a region with several millennia of history should warrant a deeper dive.
Bad information is not only found on social media and overly eager news outlets trying to beat out the competition for a story. We seem to be experiencing a communal “Mandela effect” on a global scale.
The “Mandela effect” is a sociological phenomena whereby people have a memory of some fact that isn’t a fact. The examples range from the serious to the trifling. The effect was named so because a paranormal researcher famously wrote extensively about the impact Nelson Mandela’s death had on the world in the 1980s. She went into vivid detail how the world mourned, and the streets of Johannesburg exploded. The only problem was, Mandela passed away in 2013.
The “mis-remembering” of quotes from famous movies may not move the gravitas needle much, but they are indicative of the ubiquitousness of this human quirk. How many times have you heard a Star Wars fanatic say in their best Darth Vader voice, “Luke, I am your father.”? The only problem with that is Darth Vader never speaks those exact words in the film.
As our ability to transmit “news” gets faster, and it surely will continue to do so, the importance of separating the wheat from the chaff is essential. Whether it is dateline Tel Aviv, or dateline Vatican City, there is a lot of news emanating I just cannot fully believe. The situation is not helped by the amount of “expert” opinion makers who have an unnatural and unfortunate need to be the first one in with something clickable.
Thanks to an all loving and wise God, as universal it is for bad information to travel at the speed of electrons, there is the Church, a magisterium, and apostolic tradition to act as our own spiritual editor’s desk when it comes to the most important information we will ever need.
G.K. Chesterton, another infinitely quotable soul, summed it up quite nicely when referring to what the traditional teaching of the Church actually represented. “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. … Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
When it comes to modern means of communications, it is only prudent to take it in with caution. In the end we can all take heart in knowing the only information that really matters is that which comes to us from apostolic tradition, intertwined with holy Scripture. In the parlance of today, that is what is called the ultimate reliable source.