Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Truth or Consequences?

I have always been interested in politics.  From the time in junior high school when I had to play the part of George Wallace in a mock debate, I have tried hard to listen to all views.  My parents, debate coaches, law review editors and mock trial partners taught me to think critically and challenge facts.

This is an interesting process in most campaigns, but it has been positively painful with the current flock of presidential candidates – many of whom seem to have only a passing acquaintance with the concept of accuracy. Despite modern recording practices and nearly instantaneous fact-checking capabilities in this electronic age, candidates are rarely being challenged, and within 24 hours are either denying that they made the statement or doubling down by repeating the misleading or false statements.  Being “caught” by fact-checking programs run by organizations such as The Washington Post, the Tampa Bay Time  and Annenberg Public Policy Center doesn’t seem to mean much.

 Most of us have matured in an age of strict advertising codes.  As consumers, we have come to rely on government regulations and industry organizations to assure us that commercial advertisements are truthful, not misleading and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.  Political advertising is not subject to any such federal regulation, and only a few states (including Minnesota) have attempted to regulate political advertising.  Political speech is believed to be too important to be censored and so is exempt from such rules under the first amendment’s protection of free speech.  

I believe in the first amendment protection of political speech, including advertising. Many of the less-than-truthful statements are probably harmless, but it troubles me – as an old debater – that there is so little care shown by candidates in their choice of words or statements of “fact.”

Leaving it to the public to exercise critical thinking is appropriate, but sometimes overwhelming. When watching the most recent debates, I found myself imagining that I had a magic wand that could be used to create a black cloud whenever a candidate dissembled – but with the concern about climate change, who needs that much extra pollution?

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