Are We Entering a "Fact-Free" Period in Politics and Media?

Americans are now spending more time "with the news" than they did a decade ago. If the "news" they "consume" is "fact-free," this can become destructive to our most cherished principles and institutions.
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On August 29, 2008, just prior to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, presidential candidate John McCain announced he had chosen Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. The surprising choice of the then little-known Palin captured the nation's attention; her status as just the second woman ever to run on a major party ticket was but one among many reasons. Interest in America's already long and hotly contested electoral campaign soon began to reach a fevered pitch. In the days that followed, 'viral' emails with information about Palin's politics and past rocketed around the Internet.

Anne Kilkenny, a resident of the small Alaskan city of Wasilla where Palin had been mayor, wrote one of them. A homemaker and regular attendee at Wasilla City Council meetings, Kilkenny had witnessed much of Palin's meteoric political rise at first-hand. She provided considerable detail about Palin's record during her six years as Wasilla's mayor, and included a reasonably balanced 'CLAIM VS FACT' assessment ("gutsy: absolutely!") of Palin's personality and politics. Kilkenny's sharp, informative 2400 word missive was meant just for her friends. But as the Los Angeles Times reported a month later, "More than 13,700 e-mail responses and half a million Google hits changed all that."

Kilkenny had told her friends to feel free to pass her e-mail along -- and they did, sending it to their friends, who in turn redistributed it in a variety of ways, including blogs, Web sites, and social networks such as Facebook. Moving at the speed of light, the now 'viral' email soon landed on my computer desktop - and millions of others all over the globe. "Who is Sarah Palin?" the world wanted to know, and thus, "Who is Anne Kilkenny? Was she -- and the information in her email -- at all credible?"

Before I could check, however, another email about Sarah Palin landed in my inbox. Forwarded by a different friend, this email supplied a supposed "list of books Palin tried to have banned" from the local library during her tenure as mayor. The information, if true, had the potential to harm Palin's candidacy almost before it began. But was it?

Flash forward two years: Palin is no longer a governor but still a major figure on the national political scene and a leading contender to be the Republican nominee for President in another two years. Credible, trustworthy information about her personality, politics and policies is more important than ever.

That's why it is so frightening that, as former president Bill Clinton observed on Good Morning America recently, "we may be entering a sort of period in politics that's sort of fact free..."

Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. made a similar point about the media recently in a speech about journalism, wherein he noted, "The future of accountability journalism is now at stake -- along with much else -- as a tsunami of economic, technological and social change washes over the news media."

Part of the "much else" Downie alluded to includes the fate of our imperiled democracy itself, which depends on citizens making informed -- and not 'fact-free' -- decisions. As Downie concluded, "Credible, verifiable journalism about what is important in life is needed more than ever..." Downie also said American journalism is at a "transformational moment" now, "in which a long era of dominant newspapers and influential network television news programmes is rapidly giving way to a new journalistic era in which both the gathering and distribution of news is more widely dispersed."

With more ways to get the news than ever before, Americans are now spending more time "with the news" than they did a decade ago. While that sounds positive, if the "news" they "consume" is, to employ President's Clinton's phrase, "fact-free," this same tendency can swiftly become destructive to our most cherished principles and institutions. Our collective challenge, as Downie said, "is to turn this tumultuous moment of transformation into a beneficial reconstruction of journalism, enabling credible, verifiable, independent news reporting to emerge, enlivened and enlarged, from the current decline of long-dominant news media."

I was immediately suspicious of the claims made in the second Sarah Palin email, which detailed her supposed penchant for book banning. Why? I trusted neither the story nor the sender. The friend who had passed it on was well known in our social circle not only as a shoot-from-the-lip liberal but also one rather prone to exaggeration -- and the information in it seemed somehow suspect, so I decided to vet it myself before passing it on. Sure enough, it turned out to be false; Palin hadn't really banned any books. In fact, several books on the list hadn't even been published at the time of their supposed banning, something my untrustworthy friend typically hadn't bothered to check. Soon Internet researchers revealed the entire list simply to be a readily available online compilation of all the "Books Banned at One Time or Another in the United States."

On the other hand, the Anne Kilkenny email proved to be credible -- and indeed quite valuable. It provided useful information not available elsewhere -- and certainly not from the many reports created by the thousands of journalists gathered in St. Paul to cover Palin's impending nomination at the Republican Convention. Ironically, Kilkenny even delivered the truth about Palin and the library books:

"While Sarah was Mayor of Wasilla she tried to fire our highly respected City Librarian because the Librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed," Kilkenny had written. "City residents rallied to the defense of the City Librarian and against Palin's attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter."

Like the rest of the news in Anne Kilkenny's email, her information about Wasilla's library books turned out to be factual and reliable. Will the news we see and hear in the run up to the 2012 national election also be worthy of our trust -- or have we just entered a dangerous media-and-political twilight zone, "a sort of period in politics that's sort of fact free?"

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