Friday, October 31, 2008

'The truth about the fact'

Fact-checking is always good, but it's not always sufficient. For some useful thoughts (and nice turns of phrase) toward that conclusion, let's do the flippy-calendar, spinning-front-page thing and transport ourselves back to 1947 and the Commission on Freedom of the Press.

This collection of scholars and other intellectual leading lights is often called the Hutchins Commission, after its chairman, Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago. It's sort of a home planet for the "social responsibility" theory of journalism. Meeting in the shadow (well, metaphorically) of Col. McCormick's Tribune Tower, it put a lot of thought into whether the conservative corporate media of the day were up to the task of providing the information people need to be competent citizens -- particularly when it came to the outside world.

The commission's first requirement for the press is accuracy, but close behind is context: "It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact." That's the problem with "fact-checking" an ad like Liddy Dole's near-comic bit of witch-huntery. It accepts the facts on their own terms: Yes, Hagan attended the black mass fundraiser in question, but the comments are taken out of context, and shame on you, Liddy, for being a little deceptive while still keeping a foot on base.

But that's not really the issue. Guilt by association is usually true; that's why it's called "guilt by association," rather than "lying." The question is really about who's declared out of bounds by such an argument, and the truth about the fact is that Liddy Dole is a shameless defiler of the First Amendment. "No law" prohibiting the free exercise of religion means exactly that, from no gods to as many as you can make dance on the head of a pin. Dole isn't making things up (though the shout at the end is pretty close to the line); she's just suggesting that citizens' rights to enter the public sphere can be limited by their religious beliefs. That's the context that gives facts their meaning (to borrow another one from the commission), and that's what a "fact check"of this ad should have noted.

In the cosmic sense, that's a shame, because Dole used to belong to the grownup wing of the N.C. Republican Party: the one that produced competent, forward-looking leaders like Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin (imagine, a collidge professor with a PhD running for governor). Genteel southern upbringing or not, she's thrown herself in irredeemably with the bottom-feeders. Doesn't matter whether you buy your sheets at the Wal-Mart or at Lord & Taylor; if you cut eyeholes in 'em for your campaign rallies, the rest of us have a pretty good idea where you stand.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Cleese of Monty Python fame was a guest on MSNBC's Countdown Friday evening. See the clip here:

More than halfway through the interview, Cleese poses a question about John McCain's time as a Vietnam POW being presented in an attack ad as an all expenses five-year stay in a communist country.

The mantra of most political advertising appears to be, "If you can't lie with statistics just make stuff up." Even with "positive" ads.

1:37 AM, November 01, 2008  

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