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Barack Obama's presidency

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Testing the Value of Truth

By Rory O'Connor
September 23, 2010

Editor’s Note: Though nothing is more important to a democracy than an informed electorate, political operatives of all ideological stripes have sometimes come to believe that their causes are so worthy that it’s okay to play with the facts as a short-cut to achieving a goal.

That was where traditional journalism was supposed to step in, to apply some standards of fact-checking and fairness. However, that safeguard also has broken down, leaving democracy more and more vulnerable to propaganda and deception, as Rory O’Connor notes in this guest essay:

On Aug. 29, 2008, just prior to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, presidential candidate John McCain announced he had chosen Alaskan Gov. 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” e-mails 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 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 2,400-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” e-mail 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, it was important to know “Who is Anne Kilkenny?” Was she — and the information in her e-mail – at all credible?

Before I could check, however, another e-mail about Sarah Palin landed in my In Box. Forwarded by a different friend, this e-mail 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 true?

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 programs 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.”

Going back to 2008: I was immediately suspicious of the claims made in the second Sarah Palin e-mail, 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 e-mail 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 e-mail, 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?”

Rory O’Connor is a journalist and filmmaker, and co-founder of the media firm Globalvision. He is author of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio. [This story appeared at]

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