The setting is dramatic. Moses has led the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt and across the Red Sea to freedom. He has guided them to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, and repented their sin of the Golden Calf. Now, Moses stands with them near the boundary of the Promised Land.
.. The majority, ten out of the twelve, give a discouraging report to the people. “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant. … We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. … The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. … There we saw the giants …. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” (13: 27-33)
This is the first recorded example of “fake news.” It includes two types of fakery. One involves “facts” that are just made up — stories of giants and grasshoppers. The other involves true facts — “milk and honey” — that are spun in a damaging way, couched in editorial language — “We are unable” — that is calculated to create division and despair.
.. The “fake news” has had its effect — not only misinforming the people, but encouraging political division and sedition.
.. As punishment, the Children of Israel are condemned to wander in the desert for another 40 years, until nearly all of the adults have died. Only a new generation, the Lord decrees, will be able to enter the Promised Land. (14: 29-35)
.. So fake news is nothing new. What fundamentally divided the spies was not what they saw when they scouted the land, but what they believed about their ability to inhabit it. The majority did not have enough faith, and sought to undermine the faith of others. They planted faulty intelligence with that deliberate, destructive agenda in mind.
.. Today we face the same problem. The truth is obvious enough for our reporters to see. But some are determined to divide the country and undermine its leadership. They feed false information to the public, or present true facts in the most negative light. As a result, half the country lives in a nightmarish alternate reality, terrified of the country’s leadership.
It is not just a crisis of reporting, but also a crisis of faith. We lack faith in the country’s institutions; we lack faith in ourselves.