Attack advertising, specifically, the attack on facts, is far more serious than most of us imagine, impacting both business and government. What happens when campaigning and campaign data and promises become disconnected from governance?
Last week, Kathleen Hall Jamison, the well-respected Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, addressed these issues in spades at the University of. Most of us expect campaign ads to distort and deceive. But in today’s political world, according to Jamison, the more insidious threats are attacks upon governmental agencies that are non-partisan, and that provide data for the public and politicians.
Jamison began with two basic assumptions: democracy works best when two custodians of fact are protected: the “expert community,” and the “journalistic community.” Both communities are being challenged today by big money and political outliers. The expert community, represented, for example, by the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) and the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) are fundamentally non-partisan. Furthermore, their role is not policy-making. Their task is merely the gathering, analysis and reporting of factual data. Yet in 2012, Newt Gingrich attacked the CBO as a “reactionary socialist institution” and retired GE CEO Jack Welch attacked the Bureau of Labor Statistics for “cooking” the statistics.
Thankfully, Forbes (“The Capitalist Tool”) rejected the statements of Gingrich and Welch, and acted in the role of effective journalism, a role Jamison celebrates. Indeed, John McQuaid, who addresses “dysfunctional America” represents the best of the journalistic community and made the following statement: Welch apparently doesn’t know anything about how BLS statistics are compiled, the various layers of security in place to guarantee they are not politically compromised. In fact, the BLS process is a great achievement of American governance, one of those things we take for granted but should not. Its rigor, and its widespread acceptance, show that some institutions still have credibility in an age where it is increasingly hard to ascribe to anything or anyone.
But let’s look at the other side of this. Believing that BLS statistics can be manipulated – not even by the White House, but somehow by political operatives in Chicago – is the attitude of a crank. Someone who thinks he knows everything, sees something obvious that nobody else does, and will not shut up about it. Like any crank, Jack Welch can say, or tweet, anything he likes. But because he is Jack Welch, he is able to mainline this stuff directly into the mediaverse, where it will be picked up and transmitted over and over again. No matter that it is knocked down in the process, the idea gains a certain credibility via repetition.
The role of the journalistic community is to define the terms of an argument and hold politicians accountable. The best journalism, Jamison points out, is that which fact-checks the challenges to institutions. That means it will:
- Explain facts and certify institutional trustworthiness.
- Persistently and rigorously debunk deception.
- Telegraph consensus interpretations from the “custodians of the knowable.”
When the journalistic community fails to do that, the result is inevitably poor governance.
Another burgeoning oncern is that of partisan journalism. Rather than operate to define the terms of arguments and hold politicians accountable, journalists and the media of all stripes have become lackeys of big business and big money. Intelligent viewers are well aware of two very partisan channels: MSNBC for the ideological Left, and Fox for the ideological Right. Both of these channels often serve to undermine the expert knowledge community and impact governance. Jamison’s concern is that if media and journalism are not equally finding deception on each side of the ledger, they will soon be disregarded by the other side.
And when these media and the journalistic community deny the “knowable,” they take potentially effective policy off the table. Jamison expressed great concern regarding such issues. She said that “The reason I worry most about journalism is that journalism is the translator. When the journalistic community failed to do its job to hold power accountable, and gives a sense of consensus that is false, you get the Iraq war.
Still another highly partisan approach attacking fact is the use of surveys for the sake of deceiving the public. Opt-in strategies where the respondents are self-selecting are widespread in American politics and can be highly misleading. In contrast, when we draw a sample at a true random, we can use the sample to make projective, quantitative estimates about the population with significant accuracy. A sample selected at random has known mathematical properties that allow for the computation of sampling error. Self-selecting surveys are essential deceptive, persuasive tools.
Although she was able to joke about her “depressing lecture,” and the many examples of attacks on vital American institutions, she was optimistic about individual knowledge gathering and use.
For example, she revealed that adults over age 65 were profoundly aware of Medicare policies and pharmaceutical issues—and able to make intelligent choices and determine wise policy.
Indeed, she said, we overestimate how partisan people are, particularly when it comes down to what people know. Furthermore, when we need information, individuals are very good at locating, defining and managing that information. Indeed, she concluded, “I’m not pessimistic about the capacities of he electorate—as long as we don’t sabotage them.”
Jamison’s policy organizations, projects of the Annenberg classroom at Penn, provide neutral, nonbiased information on two websites: Factcheck.org provides regular assessments of data. Flackcheck.org provides a comic perspective on “facts.”
Flickr photo: by emOrix