Hindus in the country of Malaysia had a bewildering worry last week. They went to the airwaves to warn the Malaysian public that growing numbers of phony astrologers, practicing their false arts in the name of Hinduism, are preying on unsuspecting patrons. Be very careful, said the Hindu authorities, not to be taken in by a fake astrologer.
But that very evening, while I was still trying to figure out how anyone can possibly tell the difference between a fake astrologer and a real one, I faced essentially the same issue as I listened to PBS's evening newscast with Jim Lehrer. Just exactly how, I asked myself, does a person sort out the real newscasters from the false?
PBS's lead segment that evening was a non-news item. For the third or fourth night in a row, they started off not with fresh information but with still another rehash of the week's most tired story: Why had President Bush spoken in his State of the Union address last January of Iraqi efforts to buy nuclear materials from the country of Niger? If what he had asserted back then was perhaps not true, then had the American people been duped with a false premise for the war in Iraq? Was American intelligence-and especially the Bush administration-now quite thoroughly discredited? But the PBS lead story was noteworthy for including nothing new-no new quotes, no new developments, no new faces, no new arguments. All PBS could muster was a weary rewrite. It was about a single sentence in a whole argument. Even that sentence had not been proven untrue. It was attributed not to American but to British intelligence. And the Bush team itself had said that perhaps the claim should not have been used. For all that, the PBS story (like many others in the news establishment) portrayed the administration as dishonest and perhaps teetering on the edge of scandalous ruin.
But just as PBS is less than convincing at calling something false that maybe isn't, they're almost as shaky while calling things true that clearly aren't. That's what they did in the very next segment, which featured the growing debate over homosexual marriage. The report noted a case pending in the Massachusetts Supreme Court, with potential for approving homosexual marriage for the first time anywhere in the United States. Typically burnished with an air of token objectivity, the account still left no doubt where PBS stood. Homosexual households are happy, wholesome, bright-spirited, stable places, the report suggested. But then the reporters really dropped the ball. Twice, the "couples" they were covering said pretty much the same thing: "We reached the point in our relationship where we wanted to have a baby." To which I think any self-respecting reporter should ask some obvious questions. "What do you mean 'we'? Two women can't have a baby, can they?" But PBS was quite content that evening to pretend-and perhaps to let its viewers pretend as well-that some things are true that clearly aren't. No facts were allowed to get in the way of the story.
But PBS and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, on this fine Friday evening in July, weren't through pretending. The next main segment featured the discovery in recent days of a new planetary system somewhere in outer space, judged by astronomers (not to be confused with astrologers) to be some 8 billion years older than the 5 billion year age they had earlier thought the oldest planets were. Did interviewer Jeffrey Brown think to ask astrophysicist Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institute to reconcile the fact that this was an error of approximately 160 percent, compared to last year's estimates? Did it deter either of the two from presuming on the credulity of viewers like me? When Mr. Boss repeatedly used phrases like "thrust into a new point of view," "presents a very serious problem for our conventional way of looking at things," or "throws a monkey wrench into our typical approach," does it cross his mind that perhaps he has become something of a discredited witness? Does he really still believe I should sit there and hang on every dogmatic word of his supposedly expert testimony?
Sometimes supported partly by my own tax dollars, the media bigwigs sit there night after night trying to encourage me not to believe what I think is honest and to start believing what has little data to back it up. It's almost as confusing as living in Malaysia and trying to figure out how to distinguish honest astrologers from phony ones.