Sometimes the most profound lessons we learn in life come to us when we are children.
That is me in Grade Four. That would be a watershed year for me for many reasons.
The big thing was that I skipped to Grade Six.
But there was something more subtle, but had a profound impact on me.
Every week we had spelling lessons, and every six weeks was the review of the previous five weeks. The textbook we used would have a list of all the previous five weeks with a line dividing the words from each week, and then there would be various activities and exercises.
One of my favourites was the crossword puzzle, and, naturally, all the answers were words we used from the previous weeks.
One week stood out.
One of the clues was “one who leads” and the answer was “master.”
That was one of the words from the list, and I didn’t think anything of it.
There was also the word “lead”, but not “leader”; and I remembered that, and when it came time for the class to discuss the answers, my teacher Mr. Elms asked for the answer for that clue.
I raised my hand and said, “master”, thinking he’d nod, and go on to the next answer.
Except that’s not what happened.
Boy, did that so not happen.
The class screamed at me, saying the answer was “leader”!
And the teacher also said I was wrong.
The funny thing was, both “leader” and “master” would work for the answer because they had the same number of letters, and the connecting box was for the “e” (Leader and Master), yet leader wasn’t on the list of choices; so the unified smack-down was like a sucker punch.
I was taken aback, and said, no the answer is master. There is the word “lead”, but no “leader.” The end.
Nope, I was pelted with very angry yells from both the teacher and students, but I stood my ground.
I remember how red my teacher’s face was. He was mad at me, and he was usually a very patient man. I was adamant because I could see the words on the list very clearly in front of me.
Nope, nope, nope…but then my teacher looked down the list…
And started to laugh.
“You’re right! It is master! Go take a candy from the jar,” he happily said to me, and I obliged as he did have the candy jar on his desk for that very reason.
That victory confectionary did taste particularly sweet, but the episode stayed with me.
I was certain of the answer, and insisted on standing my ground, but it was a strange feeling being absolutely right about something so banal, and getting whacked from everyone — including the leader — of the room.
I didn’t expect to be a pint-sized heroine and guardian of the facts, either. It just happened. I remember how worked up and desperate I was to show people the right answer.
It was a fateful exchange all the same.
I learned that one individual can be absolutely right, and a vast majority be absolutely wrong.
And not even know they were wrong.
Even when they had the same facts that I had. These were simple and accessible facts that were staring us all right in the face.
I knew nothing about Solomon Asch’s experiment back then, but I felt like Subject #6.
I also didn’t know about journalist Walter Lippmann’s (person #4 who everyone should know) quote that…
Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.
I felt utterly alone that moment, but I never was.
I had the truth standing right behind me, and she had my back.
The lessons I learned were profound and numerous. I learned never to take anything for granted. I learned that we can all be standing on the side of wrong, even when we are staring at the same thing. I learned to listen to what other people had to tell me, even if I did not agree, but at least I would do my best to see what they saw. I never thought I knew everything or was always right: but I knew when to stand my ground, even when everyone seems to turn on you.
And I learned not to just skim through information; but carefully study it to make sure I understood those facts the best that a person could.
I never realized then that my mind was wired to be respectful of facts, reality, and truth, as well as my heart.
I was born to be a journalist of a specific sort: the one who studied that profession and chronicle it.
These days, I feel like that kid in that picture: I see something extremely obvious, and have been standing my ground pointing out that painfully obvious.
Yet journalists are still clinging on to the very poison that killed their profession.
They are holding on to that lead when they should drop it and find a cure.
I am not certain why everyone in the class thought it was “leader”. I never bothered to quiz anyone because it wasn’t important, though I suspect someone was mistaken, wrote it as the answer, and when someone else asked, they said the wrong answer, others overheard it, and then stuck with it. I don’t really know.
As an adult, I might be more inclined to ask, but there are other ways of finding out.
But the idea of the majority fooled intrigued me.
Because genocides and wars are prime examples, and eventually, I would study war propaganda.
But then there was journalism.
A noble idea. An essential institution.
And yet it was slowly eroding away.
Not just ratings and circulation eroding, but the quality of information was getting worse.
And it wasn’t progressing. You didn’t have academia providing the necessary experimental data to reignite it.
You had Nieman Foundation from Harvard. You had CJR from Columbia.
And yet the Ivy League wasn’t doing for journalism what they were doing for STEM-based disciplines. You had dogma of a bygone era. You had cheerleading. You had patronizing lectures about how important journalism was to society.
But no corrections or improvements.
Once upon a time doctors didn’t disinfect their hands before delivering babies, and childbirth proved fatal for many women and infants.
Because doctors would perform autopsies right before killing mothers with bacteria.
Not on purpose. They all thought alike, and thought nothing of mixing the grains of the dead with the grains of the living.
Person #5 that everyone should know is Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis.
He put two and two together, and was passionate about his cause, telling doctors not to create “murder dens” and make sure to disinfect their hands so that bacteria doesn’t harm patients with bacteria.
For his proof, research, and advocacy, he was shamed and thrown into an asylum where he died after guards beat him two weeks into his imprisonment. He is known as the saviour of mothers, and history — and science proved him right.
Medicine learned its lesson over time.
Journalism still has not. They are still the doctors who muck around rot, and do not see they infected the lifeblood of their profession with it.
They do not understand that media skeptics are not trying to destroy that profession as that ship has sailed, but are trying to prevent those who have rot on their hands from infecting a new form of reportage.
I studied the sickly ways of journalism. I also performed its autopsy when the profession died.
I washed my hands of it, but that doesn’t mean I cannot bring a new life to this world.
I learned the lessons of Semmelweis.
He had the facts and the truth staring him right in the face. It was the same facts all the other doctors had, but they did not see the obvious reality and truth that he did.
His solution was banal: wash your hands.
They thought he was a troublemaking nut.
He was distressed, which was normal: you see that simple action is causing unnecessary death: of course any normal and rational person would get upset. Only a psychopath would have remained calm.
Emotionality does not mean irrationality.
But the lack of emotions is a sign that a person lacks an important component of logic.
Emotions are a barometer that tells us how safe or functional a situation or environment is.
We too often think an upset person is wrong, when they are the only right ones in the room.
Journalism is about chronicling truth and reality, and to do that, you have to have the sensitivity to read the signs all around you.
But journalists have become the walking dead.
They have no longer have a feel for their environment. They never see or feel what they need to in order to do their jobs.
It was a symptom of their professional illness.
But when that obvious truth was pointed out, they just got shrill and got abusive to their doctors they mislabelled “critics.”
The Internet did not fill the void the way it could have.
Too much of the rot of the traditional media spilled over.
Its architects — none of whom had experience in news producing — cribbed from the tainted patient.
And it infected this medium, too.
Facebook made a decision that I cannot disagree with: they tried to be all things to all people, but it backfired.
Journalism is not a simple profession, and it didn’t help they’re in a mess. They are too stuck in their ways to notice they are their own worst enemies.
I outline the problems in my books and here for now. This is a scroll that outlines precisely why journalism is no longer a thing.
A new form of information-gathering is essential. Because this won’t do:
Snark is not fact. It is smugness. Journalists have replaced the calm of reason with the rage of frustration.
We have a media that can be cracked by children and white supremacists. We have a press that has never changed or evolved.
Yet it is essential that people have accessible information the way we insist on having clean water, roads, food, medicine, and shelter.
It needs to be done radically differently than it has been done.
We still do not believe those who see the obvious.
But we cannot take comfort if others do not see, either.
All it takes is one to see it.
And then stand that ground.
The profession won’t do it. Academia won’t do it, either.
But it has to be done because the winds of war are everywhere.
And while some of us do not fear its fury, we’d still prefer for reason to quell those winds before they are too late.