When I was much younger than I am now, I worked at a medium-sized newspaper for a few years. I knew the journalists, the editors, I watched them work. I asked questions of them. About that time I was also taking classes in what was then called “mass communication” at the local university. I learned about the importance of a free press (something I also learned, of course, in history), and the role journalism—good journalism, that is, the real-thing sort of professional journalism of accurate information and dispassionate judgment that answers to the ideals of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and a code of ethics—plays in informing the public. I’d been writing—journals, stories, humor—for years, and I was considering journalism as something I might be good at.
Twenty years later I was a divorced mom with a Mac and an AOL email account in the early days of the user-friendly Internet. I loved email—I could type long letters faster than writing them out, and I was quite the letter-writer in those days—but one of its banes was those stupid, stupid, seriously stupid emails that people with apparently nothing better to do with their precious lives passed around. (Remember the $250 cookie recipe?) Usually these emails came to me from people who wanted to spread some sort of outrage, rarely personal; usually they were addressed to twenty or more people. They were often astonishing stories I had trouble believing, and sometimes they disturbed me enough that I would research the story to learn whether or not it was true. In the days before Snopes.com, this was no mean feat. But you could, with a little effort, get at the truth, even then.
One of them—this would have been about fifteen years ago—concerned a contingent of Gold Star mothers who were reportedly turned away from the office of Senator Hillary Clinton. It is not, of course, true. (The simple story is that the women arrived without an appointment on a day Senator Clinton was not in the office. It has been strongly refuted by the national Gold Star Mothers organization. Here’s the whole story.)
And the idea that people were passing around this information as truth really bothered me. (Remember, I was raised by the Original American Patriot. Truth and justice are the American Way, yeah? We didn’t tell lies in our house. We just didn’t.) So I researched the story and I wrote an email explaining the truth, including links to valid information, and I replied to all of the recipients of the email. I ended by saying,
Regardless of our political persuasion, it’s incumbent upon us as good citizens to not tell lies or pass around the lies of others. How would you feel if someone fabricated a story like this about you?
Well, it really annoyed my friend. (To be honest, the friendship’s never been the same and I couldn’t care less. I have a low tolerance for that sort of behavior.) But I learned something from it, to wit:
1 Adults really don’t like to be told they’re wrong or to have it implied that they have misbehaved (even when they know it’s true).
2 Some people would rather believe a lie when it comes to politics. For them, the “win” is the most important thing, the only thing.
3 Many people prefer to have their prejudices and opinions confirmed, even if it’s only by an apocryphal story. Facts don’t really matter to these people.
Flash forward a few more years. Now I’m an editor of books. I’ve been an editor for twelve years. I work on both fiction and nonfiction, and in the case of the latter, I have spent years honing my skills on fact-checking and tracking down original source material—because you wouldn’t believe the sorts of websites some folks want to cite as a source. For example, those awful, awful quotes sites like ThinkExist and Brainyquote? They are not good sources. (I’ve written quite a bit about sourcing quotes here and here, and I’ve written about fact-checking here.) When you factor in people whose minds are closed to virtually all information that does not fit neatly within the narrow confines of their belief system, you end up with all sorts of bat-shit crazy stuff (like the Gold Star Mothers canard) and when you add to that people who are so [determined? angry? misguided?] that they will do anything—including lie—to support their world view, well, we’ve got a big problem. We’ve got people who are promoting an agenda by lying about the other side of the story, and we’ve got people who cannot see the difference between lies and truth.
I often get work from a publisher who publishes current event–type books, often those that espouse viewpoints from the opposite side of the political fence from me. And that’s precisely why I get the work: the managing editor knows me well, knows my political leanings. She also knows that I take my work very seriously. She hires me, she’s told me, to keep her authors “honest,” to make sure they’re not just spouting hot air but are backing up their claims with facts and research from good, unbiased sources. (I wouldn’t allow, for example, citations from WorldNetDaily or NewsMax, because they are so obviously slanted they are more opinion than fact. I could go on and on with the list of biased or propaganda websites.)
But a lot of folks don’t care about separating truth from opinion or propaganda, it seems. They seem to have no ability to think critically. To question. Now we’re involved in an insane political cycle in which one candidate seems incapable of telling the truth. For months, my husband and I have scratched our heads, wondering if this guy is gaslighting us. As Time magazine’s recent cover story noted, “political debate has become unhinged from reality.”
Donald Trump, the GOP presidential nominee, has spent years regularly encouraging his followers to doubt much of what is known to be true: that the earth is warming, that Obama was born in the U.S., that the FBI’s decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton follows prosecutorial precedent. … One of the first casualties of this worldview is the very ability to have a national debate with a common set of facts.
Why is that?
I check everything before I believe it. I research before I buy a car. I look into the science of weight loss when I want to shed some pounds. And when I hear of a story that’s, well, out there, I check into that too. What makes me do this—and not my brother, say, who not only supports a congenital liar but hates the “other side” so much he will post to his Facebook page the most egregious (and easily refuted) lies about them? What does he think other people make of this … this ugliness that he says right out loud?*
I think what I think about political matters, but I try to be respectful of others’ opinions, even when I adamantly disagree with them. I believe that America needs, and has always needed, a reliable and logical conservative voice in American politics—just as it needs a liberal and progressive voice. There’s room for all of us at the table. But … when I see people I once had great respect for continue to post the most heinous statements about people like me, calling me things like libtard (really?) … well, it’s gone beyond a difference of opinion. It’s hurtful. It’s hateful. It’s un-American, frankly.
I still believe strongly in the truth, and that actual truth is ascertainable. I still believe in the power of critical thinking. I still believe that one’s character matters, and that a good citizen searches for the facts—no matter how much or little those facts ultimately support his opinion. I would urge you to become a more responsible citizen; I would urge you to check your facts. I would urge you to use discernment** as you do so. We have the technology.
* There have been a variety of scientific theories about this phenomenon. Here’s one. Here is another. As a friend of mine notes, fear + ignorance is a potent cocktail, and it’s easy to manipulate those under its influence with memes and slogans.
** Here’s how to be discerning online:
1) Watch for obvious bias; if the article uses pejoratives like libtards, it’s slanted. Look for multiple sources, too; if an article has only one source, beware.
2) Go back to the article’s original sources; are those articles being cited fairly and accurately or has the writer cherry-picked statements out of context? Does the material even support the writer’s point?
3) Research the writer and the contributors to the article. Are they experts in the field?