By Elizabeth Prata
I know what hack reporting is. I know all too well how people with a platform can manipulate public perception under the guise of “journalism”. I know how easily they may turn from good intentions at some point in the past, but once they get a taste of blood in the water, they begin use their platform as a bully pulpit.
I know because it happened to me.
Twenty four years ago, when I was living with my husband on a lake, we wanted to remove two 100 foot pine trees that were leaning dangerously over our cabin. Our town had ordinances regarding the shoreline, so the lake wouldn’t get polluted by clearing of trees and resulting soil and fertilizer runoff into the water. Tree roots held onto the soil, which kept the waters purer.
Yet, ordinance writers had placed clauses for the allowable removal of trees if they posed a danger to people, homes, or power lines. We had an arborist come and assess the two trees we wanted to take down, and he professionally called them diseased and dying. This should have allowed the permit to be issued, but it was denied. We appealed through the proper process- and won.
This was amazing not only because the appeal board almost always sided with the Code Enforcement Officer, but also because as they said up there in Yankee country, “we didn’t have the right last name”.
Our town at the time was small and the people who ran it had been there for a generation or more. Many of their family, spouses, or extended family were also people who ran the town. Nepotism was alive and well. They had a long-time stranglehold on the place, and the newspaper at the time was in bed with them. THEY all had the right last names.
For some reason, our little ‘win’ of the appeal to take down two trees caused the newspaper people to get a bee in their bonnet. They took umbrage that us, little nobodies from the other side of the lake had dared to defy the Great and Powerful Oz. They began writing things in the newspaper against us. We knew the facts, because we were the subject of the issue. There were articles and editorials slanted against us. They never even called us for a comment. They just constantly pushed their narrative, ignored the facts, and exulted in their power to damage their neighbors.
I became incensed. I thought, if they are doing this to us, how many other people have they done this to? Used their bully pulpit to defame malign, twist, and generally slur good citizens of the town? I looked into it. Guess what? There were many. MANY. And they were mad too.
Remember, this was 1998-1999, the internet was very new and blogs weren’t a thing yet. The only dissemination game in town was gossiping over the phone lines and this little paper. Which everyone read because it was the only community paper reporting on town doings, and it had held its monopoly for thirty years. It behaved like King of the Manse. They refused to print most of our letters to the editor correcting the facts. The few they did print, the editor put snide comments underneath.
I also noticed that voter participation was down. We still held to the ancient way of voting on town budgets and such- the Town Meeting. We went to the polls to elect Councilors, but the budget was passed by a majority at the annual June meeting. Picture Puritan men walking around in buckle shoes and women in long string bonnets and that is the scene. It was an old New England town, and that was how they ran the government way back and it had never changed. And the 50 or so of the “right people” came to the Town Meeting and voted what they wanted. A few more than that went to the old gym to vote in their leaders, who were all sisters and friends and brothers and sons of the same names that had been running the town since spring of 1738 when the first settlers showed up from Boston.
People told me, “What’s the use? They just do what they want. And the newspaper covers for them.” I realized that an UNinformed citizenry is a dangerous thing. It allows government to run amok and the citizens become apathetic. I dearly wanted an engaged, informed, and strong citizenry overseeing our government, from the little committees in our little town all the way up to the President. I wanted free speech. I wanted fair reporting.
“Accurate knowledge of our physical and social environment is vital for responding effectively to the environment.”Gary Alan Fine: Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend
The newspaper was hurting people with their twists and defamations and sly innuendo. Not only personally but reputations were permanently harmed, and their behavior had caused serious decline in civic participation. “I don’t want them to come after me in the paper” they said. So they stayed home…and left alone and unobserved, their doings supported by the newspaper, government’s power grew.
I decided something had to be done.
If the newspaper was the main voice and vehicle for all this negativity and misused power, and if the newspaper was a monopoly acting like they could do whatever they wanted, well, I’d start there. I’d start a newspaper, and in good ole fashioned American free market gumption- challenge them to a marketplace showdown.
Our town was socially liberal but fiscally conservative. And the conservatives’ voices were not being represented in elected government, on volunteer committees, or in the paper (which was run by representatives on the town’s Democrat Committee, a journalistic conflict of interest, but who was gonna do anything about it? Huh? Huh?).
I was offended that these people should abuse the sacred trust by slanderously reporting on people’s lives. This needed to be stopped. NOW.
I had two goals and two goals only. I wanted to accomplish them within 5 years. First, engage the citizenry by offering information about government doings so they could make good decisions at the polls & Town Meeting while educating them as to their civic rights. Second: put the awful newspaper out of business. I wanted them to be DUST.
So my first newspaper came out in 2001. In the interim between when it was announced it was coming and when the first issue debuted, I underestimated the virulence of these people to protect their turf. Unbeknownst to me, the whisper campaign had immediately kicked into high gear at my announcement. It had hit like a bombshell. Wut?! Wut?! Competition?? Like Pepsi building a factory right next to Coke. Our offices literally were 4 doors from each other in the center of town. Phone lines quivered and the whisper campaign of slander and gossip made huge inroads.
I did not know this was going on at the time. Only later, when they began maligning us in print. Then I knew.
I spent many dollars calling my lawyer asking what could be done about the lies they were insinuating in their paper. They were extremely deft at suggesting things without crossing the line into defamation. I was considered a public figure, and as such, slander, libel, and defamation are extremely hard to prove. Newspapers and online media have many protections, which is usually a good thing. Or used to be, when journalists (or people calling themselves journalists) cared about fairness. But people with an axe to grind who are deft at toeing up to the line consistently insinuate harmful things that, reputations do suffer.
“Defamation, which is also sometimes referred to as libel or slander, is the general term for a legal claim involving injury to one’s reputation caused by a false statement of fact. In general, statements of fact, as well as statements that are opinion, cannot support a libel or defamation claim. The crux of a defamation claim is falsity.” (First Amendment Coalition).
You can slander someone by arranging facts in a certain order, use adjectives such as “claimed”, show only one side, and so on. The damage is done.
I read noted sociologist Gary Alan Fine’s book Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend. I called my lawyer. I tried to ignore it. I decided the best thing to do was be the BEST. Crush them with a good product. Marketplace always wins.
It would take time and I felt like I had to run fast to stay ahead of the tsunami of articles that used every journalistic trick in the book: weasel words, adjectives that color perception, “scare quotes”, bias of omission, bias by selection of sources, speculative content, False timeliness, (implying that an event is a new event, and thus deriving notability, like digging up old events from 20 years ago and presenting them as new), etc. I needed to accomplish my goals before my reputation was damaged to the extent that advertisers would fade away, leery of the ever-present controversy the gossipmongers stoked that wasn’t fading away.
For people to believe rumors, lies, twisted facts, and other damaging reports about you, all they need are two things: credibility, and plausibility. If the story is plausible, and being promoted by a seemingly credible person, people tend to believe it. With me, the persistent defamation did eventually have an effect. The reports were polarizing. Some people knew us and refused to believe them, others were only too willing to point fingers with maniacal glee and believe every evil word printed about me.
It took me not 5 years but 5 1/2, but I did it. My newspaper was solvent, had won awards, became credible. It won in the marketplace. The other newspaper shut down. A majority of conservatives were elected to the Town’s main governing board. I sold my paper to a larger media conglomerate and moved to Georgia, putting New England behind me.
You can imagine how agonizing it was to have had people say things about me that were untrue, and how hard it was to watch my social capital on the one side rise, and on the other, decline, with the chasm between the two camps growing wider by the minute. Slander is highly polarizing, and ultimately damaging. See: Fatty Arbuckle.
When it happens within a Christian environment, the agony is worse for two reasons. First, because one would expect someone claiming to be a Christian would follow what the Bible says about slander, being charitable etc. and not promote such talk nor believe it. Secondly and more importantly, because anyone who slings slander at a believer is slinging it at Jesus. (Acts 26:14, Matthew 25:40).
With the #MeToo generation/victimhood/misogyny/spiritual abuse climate in churches these days, however, an untrue report about men can gain traction quickly. Add to the report an illusion of factuality, and you have people who not only fail to do their due diligence, but too readily believe the negative report.
“The power of a scandal fomented by a moral entrepreneur is its ability to focus public attention by questioning institutional legitimacy.”Difficult Reputations, by Gary Alan Fine
A slanderous, defaming story gains power because it concretizes a general feeling of hatred against one who preaches truth- always an offense to the unsaved and evildoers. Slander mobilizes moral warriors bent on sliding along on the serpent’s tongue. Yet the serpent’s tongue is in a mouth that is an open grave which will swallow them in the end. Outer darkness waits those who slander His sheep.
If we are wondering about a slanderous report we must do our diligence. Scandal doesn’t exist in a vacuum, because at the root of scandal is sin. Sin never stays hidden. Sin always bubbles up to the top and peeks over the cauldron prior to the ‘big revelation.’ It did with Mark Driscoll, Ravi Zacharias, James MacDonald…any man who falls below reproach cannot keep ALL his sins from view. There are always hints. Plausibility is one of the two keys. Is it plausible that a man of God living in a public fishbowl who has not had any hint of a scandal for 50 years preaching rightly and living Christianly is suddenly deviant? Possible. Not plausible.
Also, assess the person promoting the report. Credibility is key #2. Does the person reporting/saying the thing have an undue focus on this one person, effectively showing that they’re targeting/trolling their subject? That makes them not credible. Have their previous “reports” (<- scare quotes used correctly) been debunked? Is the report charitable, fair, displaying a neutrality, or is it one-sided dripping with pejorative adjectives and slants?
If you, or someone you know, is being trolled by a screeching harridan, a slanderous devil, a gleeful gadfly, a self-righteous conflict addict, we can take heart. Scripture says-
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. (Matthew 5:11).
As for the Grim Gossip or Lily-Livered Liar, unless repentant, he or she will find her portion in the Lake of Fire: Revelation 21:8, But for the cowardly, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and sexually immoral persons, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
Some of the slanderers who harassed me 25 years ago have passed on. I do not believe they were Christians, I wasn’t at the time, either, but I do sincerely hope that in the interim they repented and came to know and love the Savior. Otherwise…their future is eternally sealed. Though my agony back then wasn’t for Christ, others nowadays do endure slander for Christ. We take comfort that it lasts but a short time and then, ETERNAL GLORY!
Uncertain Knowledge: by Gary Alan Fine. I liked this quite from the article,
“We live in a fishbowl of facts; a world of promiscuous claims. Which ones to believe? Whom to trust? How do we build upon our social relations to discern hazy truth? With the information bazaar on cable television and the bizarre information on websites, our access to truth claims about the world has increased exponentially. Everything is not possible in reality, but we often find someone who is ready to try to persuade us. There is a buzzing and booming confusion throughout our lives: at home, in school, and at work. In all of life’s domains we assess information claims by judging the content and the communicator. That we often fail to conduct due diligence doesn’t deny our responsibility, it only emphasizes our limitations.”
Three Ways to Respond when Slandered: I liked this quote from the article: Slander is a serious sin. Like its cousin gossip, slander is incredibly destructive. It “lies in wait for blood” (Prov. 12:6), “destroys neighbors” (Prov. 11:9), and “separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28). But while both gossip and slander involve destructive speech, slander adds the additional element of dishonesty.