WASHINGTON, March 7, 2017 – It is difficult, but try to imagine the world without digital technology, a worldwide network, laptop computers, smart phones or smart televisions. It was generally a happy time except that people on opposite sides of the world were suspicious and fearful of each other.
So they built giant nuclear missiles. People on both sides of the globe thought, “The best defense is an ability to blow up the world.” It was an odd logic, but it somehow worked.
One day, a submarine from one side became mired near a small island on the other side and panic ensued. The islanders thought they were being invaded and sailors on the submarine wanted to get back to sea. For a short time, things were very tense and it appeared there might be fighting and bloodshed. But the story had a happy ending when the people of the island learned that the men on the boat weren’t so bad and helped them get back to deep water.
But the story had a happy ending when the people of the island learned that the men on the boat weren’t so bad and helped them get back to deep water.
That was the premise of an award-winning 1966 comedy starring Alan Arkin called The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! One point of the movie was that, given a chance to meet and talk to each other in person, people can usually find a way to get along peacefully. Fifty-one years later, people on one side of the world are still suspicious of people on the other side of the world.
Was theme of the movie wrong? Are people naturally unable to get along? Will humans always be suspicious and fearful of each other? It certainly seems things should be better now given that we have moved into the digital age with almost unlimited means to communicate with others anywhere in the world. Talking to someone halfway around the planet is today almost as easy as calling someone across the street.
Ask many young people today to define “cold war” and they will probably respond that it refers to fighting in the winter. Ask what the letters USSR stand for and they will likely give you a blank stare.
Anyone who grew up during the cold war years would be put off by those responses, but I have to say that perhaps today’s young people are just plain lucky not to have that baggage to carry around. To this day whenever I hear a siren I start looking for a desk to duck under for cover. Yes, as kids we really did think that a school desk could protect us from a nuclear bomb.
So why do we seem to be headed into a new age of paranoia and fear? The news is full of stories about Russia allegedly hacking private computer systems and causing chaos in the recent US presidential election. Hillary Clinton blamed Russia for her loss. Democrats in Congress are in a witch hunt against anyone in President Trump’s cabinet who had some kind of contact with Russia prior to the election.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle state with certainty that Russia has been electronically tampering with computer systems in the US as well as in many other countries and regions around the globe. It’s not a stretch to imagine Russia would, in fact, do all those things, but “we the people” are not getting a lot of actual facts about what is going on either at home or abroad. So what’s the deal? What is fueling this political fire? And, even more importantly, why is America more divided than any time since the Civil War?
The current term for misleading and false information is “fake news.” Not a completely accurate term, but a more modern version of Yellow Journalism of the late 19th century. Further back in time, Thomas Jefferson warned not to believe anything printed in a newspaper, and college English majors have always had disdain for journalists’ ability to mangle the English language.
In defense of the media however, prior to the 21st century, news organizations did at least try to just report news and not be part of it. That was my own personal experience ages ago when I worked for a major national daily that is now considered by many as heavily biased. It doesn’t report fake news per se, but the wording of front page stories often reads like it is right out of a college rhetoric class on persuasive writing. Telling a slanted story can be worse than not telling it at all.
How did this change come about? Personally, I blame it on a “Pandora’s Box” called the internet. I was part of the first-ever team at the newspaper charged with sending news out electronically. None of us ever thought what we were trying to build would develop into a technological monster that would nearly destroy its creator years later.
So what in the world does a news delivery project dating to the 1970s have to do with fake news? To answer that we need to take a brief trip back in time. Next…
Next…Welcome to the Carter White House and a little problem called the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Read More from Rick Townley at Rick Townley Dot Com