Much of our life is spent making significant judgments about others with very little evidence, but you do not and cannot actually know someone without getting to know them face-to-face.
We should learn to follow C.S. Lewis’ newspaper rule.
In an April 30, 1951 letter to Mary Van Deusen, a regular correspondent of his, Lewis responded to questions she had about world affairs. Apparently, as an American, Van Deusen was curious of Lewis’ opinion of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a man dominating the headlines of his day.
After an already distinguished military career, MacArthur was recalled to active duty in 1941 to lead the United States Army in the Pacific during World War II. He officially accepted the surrender of Japan in 1945 and oversaw the occupation and rebuilding of the country.
In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and the United Nations asked MacArthur to lead the UN force protecting South Korea. After some defeats in the Korean War and the revelation that MacArthur was having secret diplomatic discussions, President Truman worked to remove MacArthur from command.
The general who had spent so much of his life in Asia saw that region as the future power instead of Europe. Therefore, many European leaders disliked and distrusted him. This may be why Van Deusen was curious as to Lewis’ opinion of MacArthur.
Instead of giving whatever thoughts he may have had, the British professor said this about the American general: “I don’t feel in a position to have clear opinions about anyone I know only from newspapers.”
Lewis said he knew the newspapers often made mistakes in areas where he had knowledge, so he was hesitant to fully trust them in places where he didn’t have expertise.
This was not about Lewis seeing all reporters and papers as “fake news.” It was about recognizing their (and his) limits and understanding our temptation to judge others.
When you read or see a negative story about someone, how quickly do you jump from “That was bad” to “They are bad”?
I had a friend who was on a reality TV show and became, for a short time, a national conversation. I read stories online that called her numerous names because of the show’s depiction of her. None of that matched the person I knew.
Was the show accurate? Sure. They didn’t add words to her mouth. But was it completely honest? No, it was edited to portray the narrative the producers thought would make the best television.
Much of journalism is the same way. It can be accurate and still not give the entire story.
That doesn’t automatically mean the reporter is being biased or dishonest. Their job is to give the reader accurate information. It is up to us to limit how much weight we give to that one piece.
But too often we treat individual anecdotes as fully formed images of an individual—especially if they conform to our preconceived ideas about them.
We read one news story and feel as if we have enough knowledge not simply to make judgments about a person in that situation, but about them completely as a person.
Even if everything in what we read is entirely accurate, we simply know more about them. We do not know them.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore all news stories about elected officials and dismiss them all as unhelpful. Nor should we feel as if it is impossible to make an informed decision when voting.
It does mean, however, we should feel much less confident in decrying someone as evil just because we read a news story about them.
With the advent of social media, Lewis’ advice is even more necessary.
We often claim the right to judge someone by one tweet or Facebook comment. We will dehumanize another person we’ve never met because one bit of information gives us the confidence to dismiss them.
I’ve seen pastors who’ve given their lives teaching biblical truth on a topic — preaching sermons, writing books — only to have the online mob take up pitchforks and torches over one tweet taken out of context.
We judge too quickly and offer grace much too slowly.
C.S. Lewis’ guideline about newspapers was less about the reporter’s words and more about his (and our) temptations.
The lesson is not to doubt everything you read in the newspaper. Instead, the lesson is to doubt our judgments about others.
The Bible says our heart, not a newspaper, is “more deceitful than anything else.” That’s why, in the end, Lewis’ newspaper rule is really a heart rule. And one we should heed more than ever.