TUESDAY, JANUARY 4, 2022
Ted Koppel dares to ask: People believe the darnedest things—and they frequently do so in groups.
In a recent essay in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani recalled the work of the late Joan Didion. When she did, she cited an especially strange group belief—a belief which was recently put on display by members of an offshoot faction of a pre-existing fringe group:
KAKUTANI (12/30/21): For Didion, who died on Thursday at 87, the late ’60s and early ’70s were a time of social and political tumult...She was uncannily attuned to the dark undercurrents of the day—the social fractures and divides that fueled carelessness and alienation.
This is one reason Didion’s work resonates so deeply with us today. Once again, we are living in times defined by chaos and uncertainty, and what Didion called “the jitters” are settling in again, as we worry about Covid and climate change and police brutality and mass shootings at schools.
Congress cannot seem to pass legislation wanted by large majorities of people. Democracy itself is under threat with an all-out assault on voting rights by former President Donald Trump and his allies. QAnon followers—some wearing superhero costumes, horns and animal pelts and camo and sporting lots of tattoos—participated in the insurrection at the Capitol last January and more recently gathered near Dealey Plaza in Dallas to await the return of John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in 1999.
Along with Covid and climate change, we seem to be living with epidemics of false belief. Indeed, some of those beliefs seem to be so false that they seem to qualify as "crackpot."
In fairness, it was only a few hundred QAnon types who showed up in Dealey Plaza last November, apparently expecting to see JFK Jr. again. In fairness, the belief in question was so absurd that it had apparently been rejected by "mainstream QAnon," a pre-existing crackpot group.
That said, how could anyone believe something like that—let alone some group? Whatever the answer to such questions might be, we live in an era of bogus belief—a phenomenon Kakutani aptly describes as "the fracturing of truth:"
KAKUTANI: It turns out that Didion was also remarkably prescient in writing about the fracturing of truth as people increasingly filtered reality through the prism of their own prejudices. And decades ago, she was already pointing to the startling disconnect between much of the American public and the political and media elites who “invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life”—a disconnect that today is fueling populist politics and partisan divides.
Set aside the apparent lunacy of that (relatively small) Dealey Plaza contingent. In Kakutani's perfectly reasonable construction, we're currently experiencing "the fracturing of truth" as people increasingly filter reality through the prism of their own prejudices.
Kakutani's construction is perfectly reasonable; it's also quite familiar. As presented in the passage, it leaves out an obvious reason for the "fracturing of truth" to which she refers.
By now, everyone and her brother Kevin have noticed the "startling disconnect" to which Kakutani refers—the disconnect between "much of the American public" and the political and media elites who have traditionally “invent[ed], year in and year out, the narrative of public life."
Today, the power of our traditional political and media elites has been widely superseded. In many American homes, the Bushes were joined, then overtaken, by the Trumps. CNN (and the New York Times) were joined, then overtaken, by Rush Limbaugh and then by Fox.
As recently as 1999, the narratives of public life were still being created by traditional media elites—by people like Kakutani herself. This didn't always lead to perfectly flawless understanding and belief on the part of the public.
Kakutani, a good, decent person, was the long-time leading book critic at the New York Times. In December 1999, she penned a stunningly selective review of Candidate Gore's widely-praised 1992 book, Earth in the Balance.
The review was designed to spread such acceptable truths as the truth that Candidate Gore had a problem with the truth and a possible psychiatric problem. Of all the very strange treatments of Gore which emerged in Campaign 2000, Kakutani's treatment of his widely-praised book may have qualified as the absolute strangest.
(In the liberal world, nobody noticed or cared.)
Today, in many American homes, newer elites are now driving the discussion. They offer their own sets of narratives, their own sets of alleged facts.
Fox News is one of these newer elites, but there are many others. Many people—people less crazy than those in the Plaza—accept their factual claims as the truth.
In recent years, the fracturing of truth which has resulted has been widely discussed. In this morning's Washington Post, Aaron Blake discusses one path of false belief, starting with the birther claims about Barack Obama and moving on to the so-called Big Lie.
As newer elites have joined the fray, a wider array of assertions and claims have entered American homes. This has produced the "fracturing of truth"—more accurately, this had led to widespread differences in basic beliefs—among our American tribes.
Last August, Ted Koppel, who's now 81, journeyed to Mount Airy, North Carolina in search of this divide. Or it may be that he simply encountered this great divide once he reached that small city in Trump-friendly Surry County.
Mount Airy was the birthplace of the late Andy Griffith, the creator and star of the hugely popular 1960s TV sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show. Today, Mount Airy markets itself as a tourist destination for fans of the show, which continues to air widely in syndication.
Who are the people who come to Mount Airy in search of the mythical Mayberry? Holding court on a tourist trolly, Koppel asked a group of visitors to state their views about the 2020 election, and about the events of January 6.
This led to a 13-minute segment on the CBS Sunday Morning program. Last week, in the Washington Post, Emily Yahr said that Koppel's trip to Mount Airy "wound up evolving into one of the most striking TV segments of the year."
We're inclined to agree with Yahr's assessment, though we wish the segment had been longer. We'd like to see many more such discussions on American "cable news" shows.
Koppel spoke to a trolley full of tourists, and he listened to what they said. Never failing to be polite, they voiced the views of our nation's red tribe. At one point, Koppel even dared to say this:
KOPPEL: I won't be offended. I've been a journalist all my life. When President Trump talked about the press being the enemy of the people—
At that point, the tourists broke in to state their views. No one was rude in any way, but their basic beliefs—and the basic claims they believe to be true—differ from the basic beliefs of our nation's blue tribe.
They stated no views about JFK Jr. The segment was taped in June, broadcast in September.
Tomorrow, we'll show you what they said to Koppel that day. For today, we'll tell you this:
There are few important facts on which our tribes now seem to agree. The red tribe blames the blue for this, while the blue tribe blames the red.
Tomorrow: "We don't even watch news on TV anymore. We don't feel like we're being told the truth."