Saturday, July 25, 2009

What the "birther" controversy says about fact, opinion and verification

I find it amazing that the President Obama birth certificate controversy has gained such traction that it's still in the news nearly a year after it was first raised.

When it first came up during the election campaign, I discounted it as a weak attempt at a campaign smear by the far-right wing-nut, tinfoil-helmet crowd. I still think that's what it is, although instead of having the goal of undermining Obama's election, the purpose has become undermining his credibility.

Of course, what's put it back in the news is exposure on some national news programs, notably Lou Dobbs of CNN. Jon Stewart's recent send-up of the whole thing was terrific; my favorite part was when Stewart pointed out that CNN's most recent point-by-point debunking came from Kitty Pilgrim while she was filling in on Dobbs' show!

Of course, another part of the controversy is how CNN has stood by Dobbs, as illustrated in comments by network president Jonathan Klein to blogger Greg Sargent. (And, many thanks to @jayrosen_nyu for the Twitter post that led me to Sargent's piece.) In the article, Sargent writes that Klein told him Dobbs had presented “a few conversations with people representing a wide range of opinions.” (My italics added for emphasis - jr.)

Klein's statement is seriously flawed, on this fundamental account: what the "birthers" say is not, repeat NOT, a matter of opinion (and I'm flabbergasted that the head of a major news network can't tell the difference). Let me illustrate the difference for him.

The following are statements of opinion:
  • "Obama has done a terrific job in his first six months in office getting the country back on track."
  • "Obama's first six months have been nothing short of disastrous, and I fear for what the next several years will bring."
  • "Obama's health care plan is the fix we need now to a system that's gone way off the rails."
  • "Obama's health care plan will do nothing other than make a bad system worse."

The problem comes -- and this is evident in the birther controversy, but other areas of political discourse as well -- when people put the words "I think..." or "I believe ..." in front of some unsupported hypothesis or factual statement of dubious accuracy or authority, and justify it by calling it an opinion. Some examples, including one ridiculous one just to make the point:

  • "I believe the world is flat and the Sun revolves around it." (Debunked by every bit of scientific evidence known to humankind.)
  • "I think the mayor is a corrupt thug who takes bribes." (Either he is, or he isn't. Saying you think it doesn't make it true, any more than saying "I believe ..." in the previous example makes the world flat. And putting "I think" in front of it doesn't give you any extra leeway in expressing it in a public forum. You'd better not report such things about the mayor in any venue unless you can produce the evidence, preferably from a legal source such as court records.)
  • "It's my belief that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen."
Jonathan Klein may label that third statement an "opinion" in the context of defending Lou Dobbs' right to have people with "a range of opinions" on his show (i.e., those who believe that statement and those who don't). But that is NOT an opinion. Based on thoroughly researched evidence, it is an incorrect factual statement with the word "belief" in front of it. Klein may as well defend Dobbs' right to bring people on the show offering the "opinion" that the world is flat. The statements are functionally equivalent.

What this illustrates about flaws in our general discourse is the following: under the guise of "everyone is entitled to express an opinion," a great many people spew false facts and various conclusions based on flawed evidence and bad logic, vigorously defending their privilege to make such expressions. But that doesn't make these "facts" and conclusions valuable contributions to the public sphere; rather they serve to clutter it and make political discourse more confused and cumbersome.

This should not be construed as an attack on free expression or the right of people to hold and express opinions; as a journalist and journalism instructor I absolutely respect and support those rights. But I am trying to make a point about the importance of verification in the process, a quality generally associated with traditional media who still (as near as I can tell) operate under the mantra of "try to get it first, but be sure to get it right." In the free-range expression of the mediasphere that doesn't follow this mantra, a great deal of information unburdened by context, support or verification poses as "fact." It's how things such as the "birther" controversy get started, and gain traction.

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