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August 11, 2013
Yes, yes, I know: Ground Your Stand is a pretty kitschy title for an essay -- an obvious and unapologetically sophomoric play on words. Nonetheless, it is the title of this week's piece . . . one which will strive to make a serious -- and hopefully less than kitschy -- point. For it seems to me that these days, the positions -- the stands -- many people take on issues of importance, are, far more often than not, grounded in the tremorous quicksand of pre-packaged, spoon-fed opinion. Baldly stated, far too many of us are being schooled by folks who haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about. And, what's even worse, as more and more major media outlets are scooped up by the unfathomably wealthy, our ability -- let alone our opportunity -- to separate the cement of responsible reportage from the quicksand of partisan propaganda will become ever more dangerously degraded.
As a rather public person, I have the opportunity of conversing with literally hundreds of people every week. While I would relish more chit-chat about baseball (my Dodgers are absolutely fantastic!), most of the conversations deal with political issues: with Obamacare, the state of the economy, the disfunctionality of Congress, foreign relations, the Middle East . . . you name it. Frequently, I find that these conversations, far from being an exchange of facts, impressions or ideas, are a boldfaced attempt to ram a point of view down my throat; to prove that they are right and I am wrong. Just within the past week, I have been told in no uncertain terms that:
- President Obama's cancelling his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin was "an act of weakness";
- Obamacare is "forcing a lot of employers to go out of business";
- "With the likes of Filner, Weiner and Spitzer it's the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are anti-woman";
- If the government winds up being shut down, "it will be the President's fault";
- "Democrats want to keep unemployment high so that more and more voters will be beholden to them for food stamps";
- "The single-best way to expand the nation's economy is to slash spending."
Now, while intelligent people can agree to disagree -- and I for one do not agree with much of the above -- the thing that struck me in listening to these people is how many of them used precisely the same verbiage. When I asked, as an example, how slashing spending would create economic expansion, I was told that "in the real world, that's how things work." When asked for an instance when cutting federal expenditures led to economic revival, the response was a groaning silence. When it came to the issue of Obamacare causing many small businesses to shut their doors, I asked for further details; all I got in response was "It's happening all over America." With regards to Filner, Weiner, and Spitzer, I said that while I certainly agree that all three are undoubtedly reprobates, they, unlike such squeaky-clean politicians as Romney, McCain, Cantor and Rubio support a woman's right to choice, as well as equal pay for equal work. "They have severe shortcomings as men, not as members of the Democratic Party," I said. To this all I got back was the comment that "It's the Democrats who are anti-woman, not the Republicans."
Could it be that these folks are grounding their stands in the same partisan fact-free loam? You betcha. And what's more, the ground upon which they anchor their stand is even less secure than one might imagine.
According to a recent Farleigh Dickenson University PublicMind survey watching only Fox News makes one less informed than watching no news at all. In their study 1,185 respondents nationwide were asked about what news sources they consumed in the past week and then were asked a variety of questions about current political and economic events in the U.S. and abroad. On average, people were able to answer correctly 1.8 of 4 questions about international news, and 1.6 of 5 questions about domestic affairs. Researchers determined that someone who never watched the news would nonetheless be able to answer 1.22 out of 5 questions on domestic policy correctly. Unbelievably, those who got their information from Fox News were only able to answer 1.04 out of 5 correctly -- meaning that watching Fox makes you less well informed than watching no news at all. Now, in fairness, those who got most of their information from MSNBC were scored only slightly higher (1.26 out of 5). At the top of the scale, the best informed were those who got their news either from NPR (1.51), Sunday talk shows (1.47) or the John Stewart Show (1.47).
In terms of international issues, NPR devotees again scored best -- 1.97 out of 4, while those getting news from Fox languished in last place at 1.08 out of 4. The survey concluded that " . . .those who watched no news -- answering questions by guessing or relying on existing knowledge -- fared far better than those who watched the most popular 24-hour cable news network (i.e. Fox News)."
Cable news, talk radio and most websites do have political slants. They are in business to entertain, keep their advertisers happy and their viewers/listener/readers engaged. If they can back up their opinions with facts, more power to them. However, in most cases, as they used to say on Fleet Street, "If it bleeds, its leads." Sensationalism and attack will generally win out over reason and fact. Regrettably, that is the nature of the beast.
However, if we are to have control of our destiny as a society and nation, we must strive to be informed; to seek fact instead of slant, to grapple with issues rather than regurgitate pre-digested opinions.
In short, we need to ground our stand . . . even if it does sound a bit kitsch.
©2013 Kurt F. Stone