CNN is running a house commercial that on its face is a plea for respect for demonstrable facts. "This is an apple," a voice says over an image of a bright red apple. "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 commercial closes with the text "Facts First" and the CNN logo. CNN has aired several variations of this commercial, all with the theme that someone is trying to make you think an apple is not an apple. In one commercial we're told that whether we view the apple from the right or left, it's still an apple.
Well, sure: apples are apples; we should respect demonstrable facts and be wary of those who tell us to doubt our own eyes. We might point out, of course, that what CNN shows us on the television screen might or might not really an apple. I can't pick it up, smell it, or cut into it. It could be a sculpture or a painting or a computer-generated image. CNN implicitly asks us to trust its word on this. Has it earned that trust?
But let's leave that difficulty aside and take CNN's word that it is a real apple.
If the commercial is alluding to Donald Trump's prodigious capacity to evade demonstrable facts, like the size of inauguration crowds or electoral-college margins, it is on firm ground. Trump is remarkably unconstrained by reality. He lies even when the benefits seem small and the truth is easily ascertained. Trump is the consummate bullshit artist.
But the commercial is also deceptively self-serving because CNN, like other news outlets, doesn't merely show or describe fruit to its audience. Most of what CNN talks about is more complicated. The commercial oversimplifies things to the point of being misleading (which is not to say, I hasten to add, that Trump isn't the consummate bullshit artist).
So let's imagine a different CNN commercial. On the screen we see a curtain, and a voice says:
"The 17 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community unanimously say there's an apple behind this curtain. 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 a banana is behind the curtain. But there's no banana behind it. There's ... an apple. The American intelligence community unanimously says so, and we believe what the government says. You should too. All good Americans do.
"Facts First. CNN."
Would you be impressed? Probably not, but this imagined commercial more accurately captures the sort of "facts" the media routinely present as undeniable. They pretend they're delivering hard facts when they're actually delivering someone's assertion with the assurance that evidence, which must be kept secret, exists. You and I are expected to take the truth of the assertion on faith. Its source, which is regarded as virtuously disinterested, is thought to be evidence enough. The media treat the assertion as unquestionable fact from that point onward. If others question it, they are accused of trafficking in conspiracy theories. They won't be invited to present their cases or to debate their opponents. They will be marginalized and ridiculed. Or ignored.
The list of so-called facts which are really assertions that have been seriously challenged if not refuted is long and includes those regarding Russian hacking and other "threats to our democracy," catastrophic man-made global warming, the necessity of national-security/surveillance state, the imperative of a U.S. global military, the benefits of the minimum wage, the sustainability of entitlement programs, the soundness of Obamacare, the effectiveness of gun control, the danger of trade deficits, the benign nature of budget deficits, the public interest in high taxes on business, and government officials' unselfish commitment to the general welfare.
In all these cases the establishment media hold that since the assertions they report are facts (like apples), there is no controversy that merits acknowledgment, much less debate. To question the official narrative is to be branded a "denier," a smear that is intended to make listeners lump all dissenters with Holocaust deniers.
CNN can show us an apple, but it can't show us Russian election meddling or global warming or people being made safe by gun control. Unlike apples, these are complex things not amenable to depiction. Talking about them entails suppositions -- usually unspoken and unacknowledged -- that may themselves be controversial and in need of justification. To assert such "facts" is to assert many others things that typically do not get the attention they require.