Wednesday, September 5, 2012

“Fiction as Facts”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Fiction as Facts”
September 5, 2012

The level of dissonance in political circles has been running high. However, in an historical context, the noise level is not especially high. Pamphleteers in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries were very outspoken – as nasty as anything we read today. By the mid 19th Century and well into the first half of the 20th Century, every city in the country had multiple newspapers reflecting every conceivable view and printed in every language, often not expressed in especially gentlemanly terms. But most of us grew up during a time when TV news was limited to three broadcast networks and newspapers were failing and consolidating. As a result, there appeared a false sense of political harmony. But beneath that façade of conformity, there existed the discord always prevalent in a country of free people with differing opinions.

Nonetheless, the current situation has become uncivil, creating the polarization that has come to characterize our times. With two months to go until election, one cannot expect any abatement. Perhaps it is due to a mainstream press that overwhelmingly leans left. Most polls suggest that about 80% of the press favors Democrats. Perhaps it has something to do with talk-radio, which tilts to the right. It may be due to the internet, which allows the circulation of both fact, as well as fiction masquerading as fact. The point is that biased internet-produced news today more closely resembles the diversity expressed in newspapers of a hundred years ago than it does the relatively bland, but leftward-biased, news we got fifty years ago. Walter Cronkite is not coming back. Despite the partisanship, from a news perspective I suspect we are better served today than when I was growing up. However, responsibility for getting a balanced understanding means more work for the viewer and/or reader.

In a study done in 2004, the Pew Center of Research determined that 38% of Americans prefer to get their news from sources that reflect their own point of view. My guess would be that the 38% number is considerably higher today. This is unfortunate and suggests a citizenry unwilling to access differences of opinion. The proliferation of news emanating from so many sources means that if one chooses he or she can become better informed than ever before, but it requires effort and time.

With the ease of distributing, the proliferation of misinformation has also never been easier; so those of us who care about our reputations must be careful to substantiate what we write. Dislike for a person is no justification for promoting false or misleading information. Not only does doing so reflect badly on the part of the sender, it alienates the very people one is trying to convince. Last week, I did just that. While I sent out an apology within a relatively short time, that in no way condones what I did. The fact that others may do so in no way justifies retaliation. Gentle slaps can turn into fisticuffs and fisticuffs can turn into something worse. As many of you pointed out, with partisanship already so high, this is a fire that does not need another log.

However, the nastiness of the battle being waged is such that the temptation to violate one’s principles is there. From my admittedly biased perspective, the difference between the left and the right is that the left claims to be impartial, while the right tends to be upfront about their prejudices. The New York Times and the Washington Post are newspapers pretending to be impartial sources of news – “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” reads the banner across the Times. They are not without bias, anymore than the editorial pages of Investor’s Business Daily or the Wall Street Journal are. We are told by everybody, including the President of the United States, that Fox News does not report news, they only express opinions, yet we never hear the same criticism levied against CNN or MSNBC. Is Rush Limbaugh any worse than Chris Matthews when it comes to disparaging the opposition, using lies and innuendos to do so? Of course not. Yet, Limbaugh is reviled while Matthews is revered.

It is the sanctimonious attitude of the left, even more than their lies and innuendos, that I find off-putting. The right is equally disingenuous when it comes to molding the past to fit their sense of the future, but their comments are rarely uttered with the same patronizing assuredness of the left. I have no problem with people speaking or writing from the heart and can even understand why emotions dictate responses, but I do not condone deliberate distortions of the facts. As former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is alleged to have once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

The truth is that this election should be the Republicans based on an analysis of the facts. Mr. Obama’s policies have proven disastrous. His policies have promoted a culture of dependency. Unemployment has soared. The official rate is 8.3%. The U6 number, which includes the underemployed, is 15%. Among African-Americans, unemployment is 14.4% and the U6 rate is 22.8%. For those between the ages of 16 and 29, unemployment is 46%. Federal debt has increased by $5 trillion, driven by stimulus measures and green energy “investments,” along with inadequate tax revenues. Businesses, uncertain about future fiscal policies, have refused to spend their cash hoards. As an indication of low loan demand, according to the Federal Reserve, bank reserves have increased 22% per year for the past three years. Seniors, living on fixed income, have seen their income decimated, while asset prices like gasoline and food have moved substantially higher. Gasoline prices declined dramatically at the end of 2008, but in May of that year, with crude selling over $100 per barrel, gasoline prices were $3.08 per gallon. Today, with crude at $96 per barrel, gasoline sells for $3.85 per gallon. Corn and Soybean prices have almost doubled in the past three and a half years, while wheat is up about 40%. There is no need to overstate or exaggerate Mr. Obama’s failures. It is simply a matter of getting the message out.

It explains why the Obama campaign is so mute when it comes to talking about his record, and why they have descended to the depths they have in terms of Mitt Romney’s alleged involvement with Bain’s shuttering a steel plant and the subsequent death of a woman from cancer, or exposing any inconsistency they can find, such as Paul Ryan’s false memory regarding the time in which he ran a marathon twenty years ago. If these are representative of the biggest negatives the Democrats can find against Romney and Ryan, then the election should be the Republican’s. Petty insults and fabrications appear to be Democrats’ best card.

I make no secret of my opinion of Mr. Obama, and never have. However, I have no interest in elevating the rhetoric beyond where it now is. But I will continue to argue that Mr. Obama’s re-election is not in the interest of most Americans. I will do everything I can to stick to the facts, and let the cards fall where they may. Common sense tells me that Romney’s election should be a lay-up. But he is up against a machine politician, who, in my opinion and given his past relationships, is ethically challenged. But an old adage says that in elections we get what we deserve. President Nixon, the most warped personality to ever sit in the oval office, was re-elected in 1972 with 60.7% of the popular vote – the third largest in U.S. history. His 93.3% share of the electoral vote ranks fourth. People wanted to believe in a man who had opened the door to China and who had reduced the number of troops in Vietnam from about 500,000 to 50,000. They ignored whispers of his paranoia and chose not to focus on the dark side of his personality. Today, many people want to believe in a man who came out of nowhere, and a man who remains shrouded in mystery, because he advocated a change “you could believe in” and who promised reconciliation between the parties. Today, they overlook the fact that Mr. Obama, in contrast to most nominees, ran as a centrist, but has governed from the fringes. We are not always right in our choices.

Facts alone should be enough to decide the election, but in a world where lies and innuendos are spread more thickly than manure on a rocky New Hampshire pasture, it is unlikely that the dissonance will dissipate. Many of those in the reporting and commentary business make loose distinction between fiction and fact, either knowingly or unknowingly. Responsibility, therefore often falls to the reader, listener or viewer. Nevertheless, I pledge to do my part, and will try to be like Jack Webb to use “just the facts, ma’am,” as I express my opinions.

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