Unfactual facts poison the news, columnist says


February 8, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Leonard Pitts Jr. writes a syndicated opinion column for the Miami Herald. Pitts is pubished by the Lawrence Journal-World and many other newspapers across the country.
He was awarded the William Allen White Foundation National Citation Friday at the University of Kansas. The crowd that came to hear his acceptance speech filled the Woodruff Auditorium and an overflow hall at the Student Union there.
Pitts also spoke at KU a year or so ago. The crowd then filled the Lied Center, which holds more than 2,000.
His popularity on the university campus is important to note because it demonstrates that ideas draw just as large a crowd as entertainment does when they are ideas that matter. And Pitts’ meaty ideas stick with readers and listeners because they deal with what’s happening today that affects everyone.
Last Friday Pitts talk-ed about facts; real facts and what he called de-signer facts.
His speech can be summed up in a sentence: “You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.”
He elaborated: We are living in a political era in which partisans don’t hestitate to make up “facts” designed to destroy the political opposition and then send them out to millions of people, over and over again. They aren’t facts, they are lies. But the Internet has made it possible to fill the ether — and tens of milions of computer screens — with misinformation that it is very difficult to correct in time to prevent attitudes from being established and conclusions reached based on false information.
As examples he cited statements that the Senate health care bill would establish death panels that would have the power the decide when grandmother would die; that the bill would amount to a federal takeover of health care, that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii but actually was born outside the U.S., that Obama was a Muslim, that there are a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics in prison because they are born prone to crime — all statements without any basis in fact; all designed to create a false political reality grounded on carefully crafted lies.
Pitts didn’t spare the media.
The nation’s newspapers don’t do a good job of exposing partisan lies when they are told and broadcast because they don’t want to be seen as “too liberal,” he said. Television news programs can be trivial and also repeat fabricated misinformation because their primary goal is to make money, not to inform.
“They will stop treating listeners like idiots if listeners turn them off and tell the networks they are offended by the programming. They need listeners to sell commercials. You have the power to make them use factual facts and stop repeating lies,” he said.

PITTS USED the phrase, factual facts, to make the distinction between the truth and the deliberate misinformation broadcast to manipulate public opinion for or against a program, a party or a person.
There is nothing new about scurrilous propaganda, he noted. American politicians have been tarred with venomous lies from the founding of the republic. The problem is more grave today, he suggested, because computers and the Internet make it possible to tell so many lies to so many people with the speed of light that it is hard for factual facts to catch up.
The antidote is for citizens to do their homework.
Don’t take Internet blogs as gospel. Depend on well-established information providers. Check facts with official sources. (The State of Hawaii, for example, certifies that Barack Obama was born there. There were reports of his birth in two Hawaii newspapers at the time.) Pay no attention to anonymous comment. Let newspapers, radio stations, television networks and other news sources know how you feel about their news coverage.

He could have added, that all can help the cause of keeping facts factual by refusing to repeat the nasty stuff we hear about that other political party that we don’t know to be true. But maybe that’s too much to ask with the election season just nine months away.

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