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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Making it up

Let’s all be vigilant not to spread fake news as fact

Making it up

Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images

I’ve mentioned before in this space the dismal reality that sooner or later confronts almost every honest journalist. It’s the reminder that nothing spoils a good story like a little research.

In these difficult days of so-called “fake stories,” that brief reminder should maybe be revised to say that nothing spoils a good story like a whole lot of research. Otherwise, phony accounts just sail on.

More than 30 years ago, a good friend told me about a startling experience he’d had a couple of days earlier while flying across the United States. When lunch was served (something that tells you how ancient this story is), my friend noticed that his seatmate, dressed in Muslim garb, declined the flight attendant’s offer. “Are you not feeling well?” my friend asked. “That’s not the issue,” the other fellow indicated. “I am fasting. And I will continue to fast until at least 25 prominent Christian leaders either die or become publicly known for moral failure.” The fellow seemed both honest and sincere in his zealous commitment.

As I reflected on my friend’s account, I decided to report on it in WORLD. But when I called my friend, he was quick to respond. “Oh, no,” he said. “You misunderstood me. I was telling you the experience a friend of mine had a few days ago.” “Do you mind sharing his home number with me?” I asked. “I’d rather check with him first to see if it’s OK.” But it didn’t seem OK to anyone at the other end of the line; in spite of numerous requests, no one ever called back. It was, I believe, a “fake story.”

Nothing spoils a good story like a whole lot of research.

Not so very different was the widely disseminated report of an opinion survey taken in the early 1940s. The survey found that the three most prevalent misbehaviors reported in America’s public schools were chewing gum, talking without permission, and running in the hallways. But by the mid-1980s, the survey solemnly declared that hidden weapons, obscenity during class, and rape had become the three most frequent offenses.

Something struck me as wrong with the report itself. Wasn’t our nation so busy at war those early years that doing surveys like this might have been considered a distraction? And as bad as things had become in public school classrooms after 40 years or so, had rape really outclassed chewing gum in the classrooms we knew about?

I traced the story down to the Texas authors of a book on the crisis in American schools. I wrote them to ask about their sources, but got no answer. No answer, either, to a certified letter. I called them, but they wouldn’t take my call. My ultimate conclusion was that they’d pretty much made up their survey out of whole cloth. There wasn’t a stitch of truth in it.

The story I love the most, though, is one I’ve recalled here before. In a major German city—maybe Berlin?—and very likely in the early 1930s, a prominent Jewish violinist was scheduled to perform at the local concert hall. But in anticipation of his performance, a music critic for the city’s Nazi-dominated newspaper reminded everyone that this violinist wasn’t as deserving of his reputation as some had suggested. “When he finishes his performance,” the critic suggested, “our applause will be less for his skill than for the Stradivarius instrument on which he plays. It’s the excellence of the violin we’ll be cheering, not the man playing it.”

And so it was as the performance came to its end. The applause was thunderous, but everyone—including the violinist—knew how ambiguous its meaning had become. That’s when the violinist walked over to a nearby chair, violently smashed the violin against the chair’s back, and held up its splintered remains for all to see. Then he walked quietly to the edge of the stage, opened a case that no one had noticed, and took out the Stradivarius everyone thought, until then, he had been playing. The encore he played for his undeserving audience would never be forgotten.

All three of these short accounts first came to me as gospel truth. I have learned since then—and I encourage others—to exercise a bit more skepticism when hearing any story that’s just too good to be true. And, yes, I may tell the violin story even before the evidence is close at hand. We just won’t say it’s true.

Comments

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  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 04/04/2017 05:26 pm

    Joel,

    Thanks for a great article and perspective. I have always relished the quote from the movie "Wall Street"  [ "Kid,  the most valuable commodity on the street is good information" ] Sadly  most people today will not take the time to investigate/research for themselves - assuming for fact whatever is presented regardless of the source.

    Randy Crews - Spokane, Washington

  • Jacobs Ladder
    Posted: Mon, 04/10/2017 10:10 am

    Not getting a response from the authors of a 1980's survey of school problems is no reason to call something "fake news."   That's sloppy journalism on the part of the reporter! And is all too typical of what passes off as "reporting" -- "there was no answer when we called" or "noone answered the door."

    Please do some research on your own before declaring what some else said is "fake news," just because you couldn't contact them!

    Fingerhut MA, Kleinman JC, Godfrey E, Rosenberg H. Firearm mortality among children, youth, and young adults 1-34 years of age, trends and current status: United States, 1979-88. Month Vital Stat Rep. March 14, 1991;39(11)(suppl):1-15.

    Witken G. Kids who kill. U.S. News and Worid Report. April 8, 1991:26-32.

    Centers for Disease Control. Weapon-carrying among high school students-United States, 1990. MMWR 1991;40:681-684.   [ This covers 1980 thru 1989. ]

    Price JH, Desmond SM, Smith D. Inner city adolescents' perceptions of guns-a preliminary investigation. JSchoolHealth. 1991;61:255-259.

    Check the references of  just a sampling of these reports!  Many other reports (with 1990's publication date) report on 1980's data.

    Gee, "Nothing spoils a good story like a whole lot of research."