By Bud Herron
COLUMBUS – “What is the sum of two plus two?” asked a company president as he interviewed a series of applicants to head his accounting department.
Applicant after applicant responded “four” and each was rejected and escorted from the building.
About to give up, the president turned to the final candidate and asked the question one last time.
“The sum of two plus two is whatever you want it to be, sir,” replied the soon-to-be Chief Financial Officer.
The joke is an old one – funny because the whole idea is ridiculous.
Obviously, two plus two is four. Obviously, the president and the new CFO are crooks.
“Four” has been reality my entire life. Reality has not been up for debate. Reality has been a constant, not changed by anyone’s efforts to bend it to his or her own desires. What is, is. What has been, has been.
Americans might disagree on the precise facts of a matter or what truths those facts reveal, but nearly all of us have believed we live in the same “real” world – a place where two plus two will always equal four, no matter what we wish it to be.
I worked 40 years as an active journalist believing a “common reality” was a baseline American value. My job, I believed, was to present the news of the day as objectively as possible within this reality.
I was not naive enough, of course, to believe total objectivity was possible. Even the best intended effort at total objectivity is filtered through each writer’s and each editor’s subjectivity. Still, the intent and the effort to be objective was a primary journalistic principle.
Readers complained from time to time about perceived “slanted” news. Sometimes the newspaper was at fault; an opinion column was not clearly labeled as such, or a journalist’s opinion somehow made its way into a news story or was implied in a headline.
And, on the other side of the objectivity equation, complaints about “slanted news” were themselves often “slanted.” Such complaints didn’t necessarily mean the reader wanted objectivity. Sometimes the reader was upset because the objective facts didn’t support his or her social or political views. When the facts tell a story in conflict with a person’s heart-felt beliefs, no matter how unsupportable those beliefs might be, some are tempted to blame the messenger.
Yet, throughout my 40 years as a reporter, editor and publisher, I ran across very few situations where disagreements couldn’t be discussed and conflicts potentially resolved. Nearly everyone lived in a “common reality” and believed two plus two is four. Reality – a common inviolate base of fact and truth – was a touch point in nearly every difference of opinion.
My worry today is that a blurring – even a complete rejection – of the distinction between reality and belief too often is winning the day and shutting off reasoned discussion.
I worry too many of us have accepted the idea of “reality by consensus” – defining what is “real” based only on the consensus of whatever group decides to huddle and be the “decider.”
Creation of these alternative consensus realities – filled with so-called alternative facts and truths – has been promoted by an array of opportunists and con artists: politicians who garner votes by anointing the worst of human beliefs and behaviors as acceptable, even noble – the most far-fetched lies as objective truth; media outlets that jump on the bandwagon to make money supporting the lies and comforting the people who want to believe them; citizens who believe two plus two doesn’t have to equal four, if they just join a group that says the sum is three, or six, or whatever.
I hope this reality-by-consensus train so much of our nation has boarded is just a spur line to nowhere and eventually will run out of track.
But, if this nonsense is here to stay, and our nation’s future no longer has a common reality, that future is as fragile as a butterfly’s wing.
Once enough of us accept the irrational notion that reality is simply a matter of personal or group opinion, not only legitimate newspapers may fade from existence, but so might our fledgling, 245-year-old experiment in representative democracy.
Bud Herron is a retired editor and newspaper publisher who lives in Columbus. He served as publisher of The Republic from 1998 to 2007.
This article appears courtesy of the Hoosier State Press Association.