The Political Attack on Facts

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. 

Here is just a sample of
her insights.
Two assumptionsJamison 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 BLSstatistics 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.A depressing
lecture?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 
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The Political Attack on Facts

FAct check
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.  Here is just a sample of her insights.

Two assumptions
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.

A depressing lecture?
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 

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