COMMENTARY: Sifting through the muck

by Sep 10, 2020OPINIONS





Running for office has become a very dirty business. Allegations of vote buying, vote tampering, corrupt candidates, and nasty attack advertising permeate the election landscape.

It happens at all levels of governance. From tribal elections, where, in a tight-knit community, gossip told spreads faster than a 911 call on a police scanner, to full-blown, multi-million-dollar smear campaigns at the national level.

At the tribal level, the nastiness is very personal. Individuals, not parties, are accused of malfeasance, less than acceptable lifestyles, and any other behavior that implies extravagance, arrogance, or wrongdoing. Like the national arena, most gossip doesn’t have to come from a reliable source. After all, why would my friend or colleague lie to me? If they say it, it must be true. Just like the internet. How many rumors of impropriety or investigation for impropriety have you heard about? And, most interestingly, how many of those allegations that you hear about have been independently verified?

Elections in general turn into brutal assaults. “Sides” develop early in life. For some, partisanship is a lifelong obsession. Political philosophy tends to be siloed into two distinctly different socio-economic realms, conservative and liberal. And the social discourse of the day seems to be controlled by the fundamentalists in each group. I call them extremists because there seems to be no middle ground or compromise areas for either position. “If you don’t love this, then you are a hater and I am going to hate you for being a hater, because I am all about love.” No room for discussion. End of story. The mentality is if you don’t believe as I believe, then I guess we are at war.

And so, candidates for office spend much time and many dollars telling you why you should hate the other candidates, and vice versa. In the race for the presidency, we have candidates calling each other names like children and talking about taking each other “out behind the barn for a whipping”. We have candidates for Congress calling each other “un-American” and trying to out-nasty each other’s past. If you listen to enough of it, you truly realize that you are not voting for someone, but against someone, hopefully the lesser of nearly equal evils. And if we have come to that point in our society, tribal or otherwise, we are in a sad place indeed.

There are many in the media who love the idea of a good muckraking. Many so-called journalists don’t even bother to verify material that they distribute to the media. If they see it on the internet or, more likely, social media and think it is juicy enough to sell a few copies, it may immediately become a feature story. Many editors and publishers are relenting to the pressure of economy and running material that has had no fact check or ethical scrutiny. Fact mingled with opinion has become the news of the day, further deepening the divide between socio-economic philosophies.

There are no longer clear delineations between news and entertainment departments in media outlets, even in markets like Asheville. What is presumed to be factual news when you see it on the screen or typed into a Facebook page will likely only be a kernel of fact with a glamourous embellishment by the media. In the infancy of modern media, this was a huge concern in America. News organizations were purposefully siloed in a media outlet to insolate journalists from the pull to produce material for the sake of making a buck. Now, making the buck is what many news outlets strive for.

So, when two fundamental ideologies go at it tooth and nail, the media is right there in the fray. If it bleeds it leads. And nothing creates bloodshed like the hateful rhetoric generated by radically opposing sides.

The bad part about all this, besides showing us where our priorities are, is that voters and constituents are caught in the middle. We want good governance. We want freedom. We want ethics. We want to know what candidates can and will do for us. We want to know their education, experience, and their philosophy. I do not care what candidate A thinks about candidate B. I do not care what candidate B thinks about candidate A. Candidate, I just want you to tell me how you will keep doing the things that are going right and how you will fix the things that are going wrong.

It is possible to get the facts and, to their credit, the media is still the best hope for getting the facts disseminated to the public. But there is no longer a silo that the public can count on to separate the fact from the entertaining fiction. It is up to us to get out our rake or sifter. We have to take each thing we hear, regardless of where we hear it, and test it.

A common judicial term is “preponderance of evidence”. When fact checking fails, check multiple sources and compare what is being said about a supposed “fact”. Preponderance means more than one or two sources confirm a statement. It means that the more independent sources that are saying the same thing gives weight to the truth of a particular statement of alleged fact.

We must always keep in mind that in our society, people are assuming truth based on their own set of filters. My truth has its own set of caveats and so does yours. It shouldn’t mean that we have to hate each other. It only means that we have to accept each other with the knowledge that those caveats won’t go away. If our candidates for office won’t do that, then we are going to have to do that. Sift through the muck and find those kernels of truth. Vote based on truth and not the muck.