Seares: Pope Francis, fake news, and snakes in the garden

JAN. 24 was feast day of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists. This May 13 is Vatican’s World Communication Day. And what had Pope Francis to say?

Pope Francis’s message, contained in a document titled “The Truth Will Set Your Free: Fake News and Journalism for Peace” and released Wednesday, was inevitably about media -- and fake news.

Fake news continues to catch public attention as a cultural phenomenon and political influencer across the world. (Collins Dictionary, U.K.’s The Guardian, and American Dialect Society picked “fake news” as word of the year for 2017.) News reports on the pope’s book predictably led off with its trivia that the first fake news came from Satan disguised as a snake peddling falsehood to Eve.

Feeding crap

What does Pope Francis think about media and journalists? In 2016, the pope branded media as “scandal-obsessed who smear politicians and spread gossip to people sexually excited about excrement.”

That’s right, “excrement.” In a Dec. 8, 2016 Agence France-Press story, the pope called for a “more transparent media” and for the press not “to fall, excuse the expression, into copruphilia... always wanting to broadcast scandals, ugly things, true though they may be.” That’s right, copruphilia, Pope Francis said, meaning “sexual attraction to feces.”

So, to the pope, media feed crap to people who like the crap. The supplier’s ailment is copruphilia while the consumer’s disorder is coprophagia. Which is the greater sin?

Complaints against media

In his latest take on media and journalists, Pope Francis complains of “incremental and sensational style of journalists” and these:

■ “Mad rush for scoop”;

■ “Focus on audience impact”;

■ “The breaking news.”

Apparently the pope is no less vulnerable to the common perception about media work than many other public figures.

Especially on getting audience attention. All the above-listed complaints arise from the need or compulsion of media to get their audience: to be read, watched or listened to. Because getting the audience translates into revenue, survival, stability and growth. Because that is essential to doing their job and doing it well.

Both can be done

But here’s the thing. Media may still do all or most of those and at the same time do what the pope hopes media will do:

■ Verify facts, call out falsehoods;

■ Offer different points of view;

■ Expose underlying causes of conflict;

■ Show alternatives to “shouting matches and verbal violence.”

In sum, media can compete for attention -- hunt for scoops, shout, sensationalize or lay back, whisper: whatever each news medium’s method or style -- and still help get the truth.

It’s only when media forget their major task of purveying the truth or spread his tasks disproportionately that public figures like the pope can complain. But, hey, the pope and others are complaining. Media must not be doing well enough.

• • •

Are journalists snakes? ‘Not all’

Pope Francis compares those who spread fake or false news to snakes in the garden because:

■ they “insidiously mimic real news”;

■ they are “captious” -- they “grab people’s attention by exploiting emotions like anxiety, anger, contempt and frustration.”

But many of those who peddle disinformation are not regular journalists; mostly they don’t belong to legitimate news organizations to which they are accountable. The culprits are often propagandists and others with economic, political, or personal interests to push.

That may be the reason Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said, “The pope is not saying all journalists are snakes but he certainly acknowledges there are some who are.”
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