In three weeks, Americans will once again make their opinions heard and either re-affirm the presidency of Barack Obama or elect Governor Mitt Romney as the 45th President of the United States. While it’s cliched to say that we stand at ‘the crossroads of history’ or that our decision as citizens will have far-reaching ramifications for not only our country but for the world as well, it is nonetheless true. The two candidates have substantially different ideals and visions for the direction and role of our country. I’m not going to compare and contrast the candidates in this post because that is neither my intention nor my responsibility. Indeed, it is your responsibility and the responsibility of all Americans to seek out information on their potential leaders of their own volition; however, the problem is whether the information that they find or the sources that they use are providing the truth about the candidates or are manipulating the facts in an effort to push forward an agenda.
Accusations about a biased or manipulative media are nothing new. Indeed, such claims are so ubiquitous that they are largely ignored these days, dismissed as either overzealous rhetoric or blatant misdirection. However, the fact is that some media outlets do purposefully mislead their audiences. This can take the relatively benign form of ‘spinning’ information or the more egregious examples of omitting information to manipulate the data into a different meaning or even outright lying about the information.
Case-in-point: US Border Patrol Nicholas Ivie was murdered on October 3rd in what is being assumed was a smuggling related shooting. Already opponents of the Obama administration are connecting this shooting with the shooting that is part of the ‘Fast and the Furious’ scandal, even though no direct connection exists. This is known as the ‘correlation equals causation’ fallacy. The two are related only in that they were (1) related to border security on the Mexican border and (2) involved guns. However, so pervasively restated is this connection that what is an exaggeration of the information (at best) is being taken for fact.
A little more close to home is the case of Colleen Lachowicz, Democratic candidate for the State Senate of Maine. The Maine Republican Party is hosting a site called Colleen’s World, a site dedicated to Mrs. Lachowicz’s level 85 Orc Rogue in World of Warcraft. If you stopped and did a double take, that’s fine… I understand. Essentially the site contends that Lachowicz is unfit for public office because she is a gamer- specifically a player of World of Warcraft- since many gamers have addictive relationship with the act of gaming. They even go so far as to post a link to a ‘study‘ performed by a gaming website that contends that the ‘average’ player of WoW spends 22.7 hours a week playing the game. While I can’t necessarily argue that WoW can’t be addictive, that’s not a proven fact; just because some people become addicted doesn’t mean everyone does. Furthermore, the link they supply is from 2005, making it of dubious value over 7 years later. Finally they post links to comments on guild forums, wherein she engaged in the typical repartee normally seen on such sites.
The problem with this website and Lachowicz’s hobby is that it has absolutely no direct bearing on the Maine Senate race (or at least no more than any other hobby someone might have). Someone could be an avid writer or knitter and enough time doing those activities to negatively impact their careers or their ability to govern effectively. Colleen Lachowicz’s ‘second life’ in WoW should only have bearing if it can be proven that her gaming activities have negatively impacted her normal duties and responsibilities.
Yet, gaming addiction is a hot button issue and largely misunderstood by the majority of people, so labeling her a ‘gamer’ is an effective attack strategy. The shame is that it shouldn’t be. This is not an attack on her policies. Indeed, the only mention of her policies is when she speaks to her support of President Obama. The Maine GOP can’t argue against her ideals or goals, so they misdirect the conversation to something they can slant any way they want, never truly providing the Maine votes with a serious discussion.
I’ve previously talked about my views about our responsibilities as citizens and consumers of information and how we must be more dutiful in seeking out and sifting through what the media presents us. To be properly governed and to govern in return, we must be educated and informed and be able to differentiate between the truth and a turd. We must see past misdirection and misrepresentation of information. However, sometimes that is not as easy as we could hope it would be.
A prime example of a media outlet that forsakes all pretense of truth or objectivity and brazenly programs around a vitriolic and partisan agenda would be -unsurprisingly- Fox News. Now, I recognize that Fox has mastered the martyr conplex, claiming to constantly be under attack by the ‘liberal elite’ for their views. That might be true, but I assert it is with good reason. A 2010 study by the University of Maryland suggested that Fox News viewers are among the most misinformed individuals on issues like the economy, global warming, health care reform, and government spending. This was later substantiated by a 2011 study by Fairleigh Dickinson University that indicated that people who watched no news were often more accurately informed about the same issues than Fox News viewers. In addition, Fox News viewers are significantly more likely to believe completely false information because of the concerted and organized way that the various Fox New shows synergize with each other. “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth” – Joseph Goebbels
While it may be tempting to just chalk this up to partisan politics and ignore it, it is something we can’t afford to dismiss. A substantial portion of registered Republican voters rely on Fox News as their only source of information. This means that an unacceptably large portion of the electorate is voting on issues they do not fully understand or foster completely inaccurate views on. Again, liberal and moderate voters might assume that since 47% of the voters will always vote Republican that there’s no point in trying to combat the practice of misinformation in the media, but that’s a dangerous tact to take.
I contend that a good democracy can only be achieved by having a well-informed democracy. The United States isn’t a better country for having only a single party with educated views, even if that party (in this case the Democratic party) were to win every election. We need a political system with two varied outlooks that compete for primacy with educated, well-thought out ideas. In this way the country stays healthy, ensuring that only the best ideas win. This only happens if voters accurately understand the issues being discussed. We can’t have that unless we hold our news aggregators to a higher standard.
As voters, we need to seek out information from more than a single source. We need to hold media outlets who engage in practices that are designed to misinform to task, by petitioning their advertisers. When it comes to the leadership of our government, we cannot be lax in our duty to be conscientious consumers of information. It’s our duty as citizens and our responsibility to the rest of the world. Most importantly, it’s our obligation to ourselves and our children.