Wednesday, September 10, 2008

When the truth is just a 'little fact'

I'm so old I can remember a time when the truth or falsehood of most issues was broadly agreed upon by the electorate and political debate was mainly about what should be done about them.

A couple of years ago, a University of Maryland survey found something like 42% of adults in America still believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction long after acknowledgment by the president that we couldn't find any. How could we ever have a national debate about the war on that basis?

A story in today's Washington Post about how "falsehoods" quickly become imbedded truths in campaign rhetoric reawakens my fears. Have a look at this discussion of the truth (know here as "little facts") versus campaign claims and public images:

"The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent," [the GOP strategist] said. "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

11 comments:

  1. Jay Rosen tweeted a mention of Larry Lessig's comments over at Politico:


    Somehow we need to elevate the idea that truth is a complete defense to the charge of bias.

    The press is trapped by the view that it can't say what's true if that would be seen to have an effect on an election. Think about the New York Times' decision to withhold what it knew about the Bush Administration until after the 2004 election, for fear that if it had revealed that before the election, it would have been called "biased." Somehow we need to elevate the idea that truth is a complete defense to the charge of bias. Armed with that complete defense, I suspect more would be willing to call the McCain campaign on this shameful misuse of what Obama said. Talk about a question of judgment: If a student of mine had read what Obama said in context, and then suggested he was really talking about Palin, I would seriously worry about whether we should arm that student with a law degree. But a law degree is a much less dangerous power than the Presidency.

    And come on, Steve [Calabresi]. A "post-partisan politics" can't possibly mean you're not allowed to criticize the policies of your opponent. It should instead mean you don't make truth a function of which party it happens to benefit. That ideal should begin with us. The "interpretation" of Obama's statement offered by the McCain campaign is absurd. If we can't say that, then how can we expect anyone to be able to speak it?

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  2. "A couple of years ago, a University of Maryland survey found something like 42% of adults in America still believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction long after acknowledgment by the president that we couldn't find any"

    GO TERPS!

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  3. Anonymous4:33 PM

    9:07: If you're talking about the interpretation offered by the McCain campaign of Obama's pig comment: Based on the video, the crowd pretty clearly understood him to be taking a shot at Palin. Whether he meant it that way or not, he left it open to interpretation.

    At least, the interpretation is pretty far from absurd, and if journalists said it *was* absurd, that would be bias.

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  4. 4:33: Journalists should not fear using facts to discount soothsayers.

    The current context is Palin, yes, but not the "Lipstick on a Pig" comment that both McCain _and_ Obama have made. Instead, it's Palin's "Thanks, but no thanks!" to the "Bridge to Nowhere" stump statement.

    Lessig's point isn't limited to the current kerfluffle, but a broader one about the timidness of journalists to be called "biased" by those with a vested interest in advancing their own narrative with as little skeptical examination as possible.

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  5. Anonymous10:59 PM

    Alaska Daily News, March 12, 2008:
    "Palin ruffled feathers when she announced - without giving the delegation advance notice - that the state was killing the Ketchikan bridge to Gravina Island, site of the airport and a few dozen residents."
    http://www.adn.com/front/story/343508.html

    If Palin wasn't killing the bridge project, why was the AK delegation upset?

    Is the Alaska Daily News wrong, or are are the Democrats wrong? Hmm ... given that the bridge to nowhere line is a pretty effective one on the stump, I'm leaning toward the latter.

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  6. Anonymous11:06 PM

    Oooh, and here's another one: An ADN story from Feb. 8, 2008, says Palin "removed the funding" for the bridge: http://www.adn.com/sarah-palin/background/story/517382.html.

    I guess Palin's narrative is pretty well in line with the narrative reported in the Alaska Daily News.

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  7. Anonymous9:23 AM

    Whoops, comment before 11:06 did not make it through moderation. It said:

    Alaska Daily News, March 12, 2008:
    (http://www.adn.com/front/story/343508.html)

    "Palin ruffled feathers when she announced - without giving the delegation advance notice - that the state was killing the Ketchikan bridge to Gravina Island, site of the airport and a few dozen residents."

    Who's wrong: the Democrats, or the ADN?

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  8. Anonymous9:23 AM

    Whoops, comment before 11:06 did not make it through moderation. It said:

    Alaska Daily News, March 12, 2008:
    (http://www.adn.com/front/story/343508.html)

    "Palin ruffled feathers when she announced - without giving the delegation advance notice - that the state was killing the Ketchikan bridge to Gravina Island, site of the airport and a few dozen residents."

    Who's wrong: the Democrats, or the ADN?

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  9. Anonymous9:24 AM

    Whoops, comment before 11:06 did not make it through moderation. It said:

    Alaska Daily News, March 12, 2008:
    (http://www.adn.com/front/story/343508.html)

    "Palin ruffled feathers when she announced - without giving the delegation advance notice - that the state was killing the Ketchikan bridge to Gravina Island, site of the airport and a few dozen residents."

    Who's wrong: the Democrats, or the ADN?

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  10. 9:23: False dichotomy. Saying the state won't foot the bill when it's likely Congress (under scrutiny) won't close the funding gap is not the same as standing on principle (and as a lay observer, that seems to be her message) and turning down a project from the get go.

    It is entirely possible that her decision _was_ a surprise to the state's congressional delegation _and_ that she made a politically expedient decision in doing so.

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  11. Anonymous10:36 PM

    Actually, if you'll pardon the linguistic mutilation, it's a true dichotomy. You're moving the goalposts.

    The stump quote is: "I told Congress thanks, but no thanks, on the bridge to nowhere."

    Either she killed the bridge to nowhere, or she didn't.

    The Democrats (and the piece linked to in Howard's post) say she didn't.

    The ADN says she did.

    Whether she supported it at first is not the question. Nor is "political expediency."

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