You see an apple.
But not just any apple. Perfect in color, perfect in shape and without blemish, this is the apple other apples dream of being. It is the acme of apples, the most apple-y apple you ever saw, and you’d never mistake it for something else.
“This is an apple,” says a male voice, as a piano idles aimlessly. “Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana. They might scream, ‘Banana, banana, banana,' over and over and over again. They might put BANANA in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana. But it’s not. This is an apple.”
The apple’s bona fides thus established, a tagline flashes onscreen: “Facts First.” Then comes a logo: CNN.
Thus goes an ad that debuted Monday on Facebook. Here’s hoping it’s effective. The truth needs all the help it can get in an era where untruth spews from the highest levels of American governance with a brazenness and frequency never seen before.
Still, there’s something a little rich in the fact that the spot was produced by a network known for shows where pundits in boxes yell half-truths over one another.
The best of them, meaning the worst of them, was Jeffrey Lord, the Donald Trump surrogate who, before he was fired in August for tweeting a Nazi salute, made jaws drop on a regular basis with the crazy things he said.
Such as when he called the Ku Klux Klan a “leftist terrorist organization.” And said Black Lives Matter caused the rise of white supremacy. And blamed singer Ariana Grande for the terrorist attack at her concert in England.
It’s bad enough Lord spewed that nonsense. What’s worse is, CNN gave him the platform to do so. The network would likely say that it just wants to make sure all viewpoints are represented.
But the barrenness of that rationale was exposed 13 years ago in a commentary Emory psychology professor Drew Westen did for NPR. He had noticed how CNN brought in Republican and Democratic flacks to comment on “claims” that weapons were missing from an Iraqi munitions dump.
But these were not “claims,” said Westen. It was a fact the weapons were missing, and also a fact that this was an embarrassment for the Bush White House. He concluded that CNN failed to frame it as such, brought in left and right talking heads to cover itself, out of fear that reporting the truth would be seen as bias.
“We have,” he said, “grown accustomed to hearing two versions of every story, one from the left and one from the right, as if the average of two distortions equals the truth.”
That’s how squeamish news media were over a decade ago. It has only gotten worse since then.
To be sure, CNN does not bear all or even most of the responsibility for America’s retreat into facts-free incoherence. For that, blame the internet (which gave lies greater reach), the schools (which did not demand critical thinking), the politicians (who acted like politicians) and all of news media, both print and electronic.
CNN, like many others, has embraced false equivalences in the search for that mythic beast, “objectivity.” It has sought to suspend the role of judgment in journalism – as if the one did not, by definition, require the other. Now the proverbial chickens come home to roost.
Our president is a liar, our Congress is a circus, our friends are frightened, our enemies emboldened and our society is pulling itself apart. This, we are told, constitutes making America great again. And some people believe it. Why not?
A country that can’t tell apples from bananas is a country that will swallow anything.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Miami Herald. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.