Why We Desperately Need C.S. Lewis’ “Newspaper Rule”

C.S. Lewis newspaper rule

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.

4 Comments

  1. Nice post Aaron. I talk about something similar in my chapter, “The Internet Conundrum” in my book. There is definitely a difference between healthy skepticism and contrarianism.

  2. Jack

    Another interesting C.S. Lewis quote on the subject in December 1944:

    “In the last few years I have spent a great many hours in third-class railway carriages (or corridors) crowded with servicemen. I have shared, to some extent, the shock. I found that nearly all these men disbelieved without hesitation everything that the newspapers said about German cruelties in Poland. They did not think the matter worth discussion: they said the one word “Propaganda” and passed on. This did not shock me: what shocked me was the complete absence of indignation. They believe that their rulers are doing what I take to be the most wicked of all actions – sowing the seeds of future cruelties by telling lies about cruelties that were never committed. But they feel no indignation: it seems to them the sort of procedure one would expect. This, I think, is disheartening. But the picture as a whole is not disheartening. It demands a drastic revision of our beliefs. We must get rid of our arrogant assumption that it is the masses who can be led by the nose. As far as I can make out, the shoe is on the other foot. The only people who are really the dupes of their favourite newspapers are the intelligentsia. It is they who read leading articles: the poor read the sporting news, which is mostly true.” (C.S Lewis, ‘Private Bates’).

  3. Jack

    I guess you have already seen this doodle on the subject? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IE4oZ6F-gQM

About Author

Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.