Reprinting the legend

The sacred season is now upon us.  Granted, the real Holy Week of the year is still ten days away.  But the other high holy days took place this week.  Baseball is back!

But even there the phenomenon of “fake news” seems to be at work.  Case in point: Ty Cobb.

Everyone knows his story.  He’s the first player voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.  But he’s the player that Shoeless Joe Jackson said (at least in the movie) no one liked.  He has the highest lifetime batting average in MLB history.  But he’s also been accused of homicide.  When his career ended, he held ninety records.  But when he’s talked about today, the image of a dirty player with high-flying spikes usually comes to mind.

Is it all just fake news?  Yes! – says Charles Leerhsen, author of a biography called Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty which is described as “groundbreaking, thorough and compelling.” In a video summary of the book, Leerhsen gives voice to a journalistic credo that lies at the root of the phenomenon:  “when the legend beats the facts … print the legend!”

Legends become popular in their repeated re-telling precisely because we share a concern for the values they disclose (or, in this case, fail to show).  But when the story is fabricated from falsehoods, the legend hides the lie.  And therein lies the deeper social problem.

Without truth how can we rightly co-exist and flourish together?  This isn’t about creative writing or fictional license.  It’s certainly not tabloid “news” – which any thinking person should know has no intention of being true. Instead, it’s about doing something that every child is taught from a tender age – tell the truth.

Granted, every story has a slant.  The subjectivity of the source necessarily factors into the telling of any tale.  But when a fake story is told, especially by those whose very profession is to communicate what people need to know, falsehood foments discord.  When that fake story takes hold over generations, history is hurt.

But this is not a new phenomenon.  More than 400 years ago, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) wrote about this issue in his classic Introduction to the Devout Life, in a relatively lengthy chapter (pt. 3, chap. 29) on slander, which he describes as “the plague of society.”  Sadly, this Doctor of the Church knew nothing of the joy of baseball.  But he did know about holiness and its opposites.  Although the saint was writing about interpersonal speech, his words of wisdom could pass as a worthwhile credo for authors, too:

“Beware of imputing false crimes and sins to your neighbor, neither discovering those that are secret, nor exaggerating those that are obvious, nor interpreting evil in his good works, nor denying the good that you know to be in him, nor hiding it maliciously, nor diminishing it with words, for in all these ways you greatly offend God, but also by falsely accusing and denying the truth do harm to your neighbor.  Indeed, it is a double sin:  both to lie and to harm your neighbor at the same time.”

Underway now are various attempts to stop “fake news” whether through legal proscription or technological innovation.   But truth-telling runs deeper, to the realm of the human spirit, and there it bears an anthropological responsibility. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his message for the 2008 World Day of Communications, the media “can and must contribute to making known the truth about humanity, and defending it against those who tend to deny or destroy it.  One might even say that seeking and presenting the truth about humanity constitutes the highest vocation of social communication.”

That vocation calls out to all of us, not just journalists.  It’s in the realm of the spirit, there within our minds and hearts, that we share the sacred experience of a new baseball season.  So it’s there also, within the soul of each one of us, that we should examine our consciences in what remains of this holy season of Lent.

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