The half-truth cult is everywhere these days and I did not choose Joe Rogan as its villain so much as he volunteered for the role. But before we dive into that topic, a disclaimer. Long time readers know I studied journalism once. I’ve been embarrassed of those who claim that career for the last decade or so, although not as embarrassed as they would be of me, I’m sure. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve long espoused the point of view that studying and writing nonfiction is important for the fiction writer. It sharpens and hones your prose in ways the average fiction writer rarely focuses on.
But the modern journalist goes in the opposite direction. Many modern schools of communication focus on the importance of building a narrative as the most important task for a communicator. That makes a great deal of sense, as narrative is what most sticks with the audience. People can forget dozens of little details but still hold on to the core ideas and direction of a story. Ask anyone to tell you the plot of their favorite movie. If you record what they tell you and compare it to the movie itself you’re going to get two different stories. The person will inevitably invent things that weren’t in the film. The movie will include details the person left out. And the order of events is probably going to be different than what you were told as well.
And that’s before we touch on any of the misquotes and flubbed names they make.
But the core direction and theme of the story is going to come through loud and clear. That is the power of narrative. If you want to communicate something to your audience narrative is the best way to do it and journalism is a medium that is inherently concerned with narrative, so it would seem to be a match made in heaven. The problem is, journalists are dealing with the narrative of reality, which is a huge, sprawling mess of overlapping ideas, themes, directions and characters which resist most attempts to boil them down to something simple and easily digested.
Modern communication theory demands it be done anyway.
The problem is, when handed to a human being, reality tends to get distilled down to what is most convenient rather than what is the most true. If you doubt that, try finding the drivers of the vehicles in a two car collision and ask them what happened. You’re going to get two very selectively edited stories. In theory, journalists are taught a number of methods to avoid falling into the trap of self-interest. In practice, we see these techniques in use very rarely.
The recent reporting on Joe Rogan’s brief bout with coronavirus is a great example of this, which brings us back to the beginning. For those who missed this tempest in a teapot, Joe Rogan, the English speaking world’s biggest podcast host, posted a brief video to his Instagram reporting that he’d caught Covid. He recapped the treatments his doctor had recommended and reported they’d tried them all. Among them was the antiparasitic drug Ivermectin.
Now, Ivermectin is a proven medicine devised for very specific purposes among the human population but which some doctors have experimented with using in a wide variety of other circumstances. Respiratory infections like the common cold being one of them. Since Covid-19 is a close relative of the coronavirus which causes the common cold, these experimentally minded doctors also experimented with using Ivermectin to treat the 2019 strain of Covid.
There is also a blend of Ivermectin that can be used to treat horses for intestinal worms.
As both Rogan and Covid are topics of some interest to the public, CNN chose to report on Rogan’s illness and mentioned that, among other things, he’d been prescribed the horse dewormer Ivermectin. Rogan has since considered legal action against CNN and vocally denied taking the veterinary blend of Ivermectin. Amid this controversy, CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta went on Rogan’s show to promote his book on the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rogan was understandably hard on CNN’s reporting and grilled Gupta in person wanting to know why his network lied. CNN has since defended itself through correspondent Don Lemon by pointing out that Rogan did take Ivermectin and it can be used as a horse dewormer, so they didn’t really lie. But I haven’t met anyone that really takes this defense seriously or views this as anything other than a deliberate attack on Rogan’s intelligence. The only question discussed is whether Rogan deserved the attack.
This is more than an academic discussion of the eroding state of public journalism. It’s a clear indication of the dangers of half-truth. It’s very easy for someone crafting a narrative to fall into the trap of thinking they have control of all the variables and anyone bringing a different interpretation to the table must be wrong or even working against them. This temptation is doubly strong for a person crafting a fictional narrative. There’s a strong belief in the modern day and age that “fiction” means “divorced from reality.” That isn’t remotely true.
There’s more to reality than narratives and an author who tries to write while ignoring this fact is going to lose his audience very quickly. Whether it’s a highly technical field like medicine or a very nuanced and subjective field like psychology, you need to put in work to get it right. Do a lot of research. Develop connections in the field and draw on them. Don’t be afraid to spend a little money to get the opinion of a reliable expert where appropriate. Above all, seek feedback. And make sure it’s something you can trust and take into account, or else people will quickly see that you’re either ignorant or deliberately ignoring reality to make your narrative.
You can’t condescend to your audience like that – they’ll stop listening to you. If you can’t put in the work or you don’t want to listen to the advice you receive on a subject, you probably shouldn’t write it. But if you do, have care. It’s not far from there to the half-truth cult. There’s no saying you’ll draw the ire of an irritable podcast host of the stature of Joe Rogan but there’s no way to be sure. And from all I’ve seen, the experience is not a fun one. Better to avoid it all together.