(The Root) — On my radio show TWiB! we cover myriad topics — from the problematic to the flat-out absurd to the seriously dangerous. However, because we scour through news stories every day, we've started to notice a frightening pattern. People — who we're supposed to respect and listen to — are saying things that are not only questionable but completely misleading.
I'm not speaking of really complicated, wonky-type stuff (you know, the type of stuff Christine O'Donnell is into). I'm talking about ideas and concepts that a quick Google search would prove true or false, with a string of experts to back it up. One of my co-hosts, Aaron Rand Freeman, often laments the work we put in to create reasonable, fact-based arguments, yet we aren't getting traction the way people who seem to just talk out of their asses are.
"Apparently it's #SayAnything2012," he said exhaustedly.
And he's right.
We live in an amazing time. There's so much information at our fingertips — we could become experts at virtually anything. If you had the time, energy and an Internet connection, you could learn how to dissect a frog, an engine or a political argument. Yet media outlets, pundits and politicians themselves actively promote misrepresentations, half-truths, maliciously framed ideas and outright lies. And there's little consequence. You can say virtually anything when it comes to our political landscape and it's OK — as long as it doesn't mess with your team's bottom line (*cough* Todd Akin *cough*).
If you're lying, people who share your political allegiances and ideals will say that the accusations are political spin. There's no one true authority. The news media, whom many think of as the gatekeepers of truth, are often nothing more than pretty, branded packages of yellow journalism. Politicians, who desire to be elected in order to represent us — to be our voice within government — seek to maintain public office. Because of that, they will often say whatever they feel will get us to trust and vote for them.
None of this equates with being honest and truthful.
For example, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has been on the stump and plastering TV ads in battleground states claiming that the president has taken the "work" out of "work for welfare." Fact-checkers and many within the news media have pointed out that this claim is false. It's not just a different framing or opposing viewpoint — it's an actual lie. Yet this candidate for the highest office of the land continues to make this argument, and media with an ax to grind with the president co-sign. At Romney-Ryan rallies, audiences boo the president for taking their money and giving it to shiftless, nonworking welfare recipients.
Another example: The Aug. 21 issue of Newsweek (it has "news" in the title!) published a cover story from conservative historian Niall Ferguson on why America needs to get rid of Barack Obama as president. Ferguson, who worked as an adviser to John McCain in 2008, lays out a detailed argument as to why Obama has failed and needs to be sent packing. His argument is compelling if you have no urge to actually verify various points that he makes.
Many have already dissected, questioned and flat-out attacked Ferguson for his cover story, but outside of political junkies who either already knew something was off or actively searched for confirmation, the backlash will have little effect on the damage that he's already caused.
Headlines of "Romney: Obama Takes Work out of Work for Welfare" and "Obama Needs to Go" get more coverage than the follow-up story: "Fact Checkers Question These Statements." Newsweek has provided a reference point in the bigger diagram of the 2012 election. Romney is giving his supporters false information to fuel their righteous anger. Both Ferguson and Romney have engaged in #SayAnything2012 and will continue. One may end up with a comfy gig at some right-wing echo chamber, and the other may end up as president.
What reason do they have to be honest?
The problem goes even deeper. In January 2012 a New York Times editor asked readers, "Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" highlighting that some of its audience had asked the newspaper to point out when assertions by politicians and others are false. I, as did many others, thought, "You aren't doing this already?" Isn't the whole point of respected news sources that they're supposed to tell the truth and point out lies? How did one of the most respected sources of news in the United States get to the point that they had to ask that?
If you're wondering why I haven't criticized Obama's camp for the controversial anti-Romney ad about the man whose wife died of cancer after his employer went belly-up under Bain, it's because I'm not falling into the false-equivalency trap — that to make a point, we have to attack everybody because "both sides do it!" It's not the same. That was a super PAC ad, unaffiliated with Obama, while the welfare attacks are coming directly from Romney's campaign. It makes no sense to compare the two. So I won't.
#SayAnything2012 is real. And with an understanding of this time in our history, we have to also acknowledge that we're on our own. Yes, you may have a favorite place to read the stories of the day, but it shouldn't be your only place. In understanding our current political and news media space, we as the consumers have to take it on ourselves to verify what we're reading as opposed to taking it as gospel.
It's not just a good thing to do; it's the duty of those who claim to be informed. I had a gentleman explain to me that he read the New York Times, so he's pretty much up on things. I shook my head and politely suggested that he expand his news sources.
But this isn't just about the news consumer. Yes, you need to diversify and seek differing opinions and genuine facts, but at the same time, there needs to be more scrutiny of our news providers and our elected officials. Publishing horrendously framed stories and telling half-truths to gain votes isn't just a bad practice. It's an immoral one.
There's a responsibility that comes with speaking in public spaces and seeking public office. Arguments are made that "it's just politics," or "news organizations still have a bottom line: money." While these things are true to a certain degree, can we actively pretend that if things continue to go in the direction that they are right now, we'll have an informed society? A society that not only understands the facts but also has the capability to make decisions based on them?
Or was an uninformed electorate the goal in the first place?
Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at 1:30 p.m. EST at TWIB.FM and watch at TV.TWIB.ME/LIVE. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.