Melissa Walsh

Democracy & the Power of Knowledge

Powerplay Communications | February 2010 | Democracy & the Power of Knowledge

Thinker table

In a letter to W. T. Barry in 1822, James Madison wrote, A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

Demand Fact-Based Content; Reject Sensationalism as “News” Every new grad of journalism has a fundamental career decision to make. Sell sensationalism. Or aim for truth-telling. Call me “old-fashioned,” but I find the “the new journalism” of leading 1A stories with opinion, speculation, or rumor quite disturbing. Save it for the op-ed page or a blog entry.

Readers are accountable too, because the journalist’s commitment to truth-telling cannot sustain a democracy if the readership discontinues its demand for truth. For our American democracy to thrive, media consumers must make the effort to discern fact- based information from sensational speculation. They must actively support media outlets and independent journalists who value truth-telling over money and attention.

Filtering the good information from the clutter of unverified statements is difficult. It requires looking deeper than the morning paper and evening news, where headline stories may have been rapidly spun from content spoon-fed by press secretaries and decision-makers who are so high up the food chain that they have little to no sense of how those at the grassroots are subsisting. Becoming a critical thinker and good news reader requires becoming a student of history, an independent researcher, a fact- checker, and an informed and listening observer.

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis opines that newspapers alone offer little value for acquiring knowledge: Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be seen before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.

When I’m on a quest for knowledge about a topic, I don’t accept as real or complete news that passes as “news” alone. Complex events are presented in a news story too quickly and too simply to teach us anything of substance. I know from living abroad where news was happening before my eyes that a newspaper reporter’s black and white rendering too often excludes the critical gray tones and colors of the truth. Therefore, to get the whole story, I invest my dollars and time in news supplements and alternatives:

Study history. Just as I might gain insight into Italian from studying Latin, I learn about today’s events from reading history. For, example, I know from studying history that there is a historical pattern of economic instability leading to political instability. Any history buff knows that poverty leads to unrest, that the want for bread generates a hunger for freedom. And look what we see in the headlines today ! rebellion triggered by damaged economies and rebels looking for a scapegoat.

Read the wires. Reading the wires regularly, I was able to connect the recent ousting of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to the demonstrations in Egypt. Wire services, such as AP and Reuters, function as boots-on-the-ground news services that consumers desperately need to sift through the muck of ratings-driven reporting and to find some essential pieces of information and insight that the mainstream talking heads have left out.

Check the facts. For issues that I have a special interest in understanding clearly and completely, I regularly consult primary source material to verify statements made on the networks and in the press. For example, I referred to the DoD’s Comptroller for the complete details of the proposed 2012 defense budget while reading news surrounding conflicts regarding the federal budget. I also check the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s website frequently. My concern for our service men and women serving in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) prompts me to review at least weekly the list of casualties. I also scan the DoD press releases.

Support Fair, Reasonable Critical Thinkers; Dismiss Hype- Mongering Pundits As freedom-lovers, we must equip ourselves with knowledge to make our leaders and our press accountable. Passively listening to a tirade on Fox or MSNBC does not qualify as gaining knowledge. Just a little fact-checking, and you’ll find the cracks in the claims of these prime-time windbags who make a heck of a lot of money for their networks. A sign that our nation has become intellectually healthy would be the networks finally booting these guys from the airwaves due to low ratings. When consumers do their homework, interest in anti-intellectual, attention-seeking pundits withers. Pundits like these, whether on the right or the left of the political spectrum, are what I call “Hype Mongers.” And I would love to see the American public tune them right out of business.

In the embedded table, I contrast the character of The Truth Seeker (the good pundit) against The Hype Monger (the evil pundit):  Challenge Policy Makers; Renounce Empty Partisan Rhetoric Political leaders can be just as ugly and deceitful as hype mongers. Policy makers can severely damage businesses as they make decisions impacting industries for which they are not subject- matter experts, when they gain campaign support for votes. Surely, lobbyists drive policy-makers’ decisions just as ratings drive the headlines in the mainstream network teasers. Also, when policy makers legislate by presumptuously putting people in boxes and labeling them with sweeping generalizations, the lives of many individuals are affected. When defense contractors and commanders looking to put a feather in their cap push for war tactics based on new technology rather than the real needs of the servicemen in the fight, thousands of lives and billions of tax dollars are lost.

In his essay “Congressional Oversight Willing and Able or Willing to Enable?”1 Winslow T. Wheeler described congressional oversight on executive branch national security decisions this way: Mere words, in the form of prognostications at congressional hearings may catch the momentary eye–and the evening news–but their impact on policy, and history, vary from transitory to nonexistent. Beyond that, poorly informed questions, prosecuted ineffectually at a congressional hearing do little more than help us identify which politicians are the lightweights.  As constituents, we must challenge our senators and representatives to do their homework and truly become the check and balance they were prescribed to be in the U.S. Constitution.

If an informed citizenry held policy makers accountable, then we would have ourselves one fine democracy.

The Democracy We Deserve George Bernard Shaw said, “Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” Gaining knowledge is hard work, and it is our duty as citizens. Seeking truth isn’t a warm and fuzzy challenge; it forces one to look at evil in the world, to witness suffering, to come to terms with betrayal by those entrusted to lead. But knowledge can equip and inspire citizens to act. It will lead to a higher quality of democracy.

In this dynamic media age, I hope that media managers are considering new ways for supporting a readership’s truth quest, such as enhancing reports with historical notes, facts and figures, and statements from relevant, diverse, and grounded viewpoints.

Instead of following the money, news must follow the truth. This way, the people might prevent legislation from following the money and ensure it protects people. News consumers would stop passively accepting the arguments of the Republican or Democrat dynasties and their ruling heirs, and instead demand transparency, accountability, and truth-telling.

“Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think,” wrote American patriot Thomas Paine. “But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks and all it wants is the liberty of appearing.”2

Let truth be the magnet that attracts and energizes our American democracy. Let the hype fade.

1 The Political Labyrinth, February 2011. 2 Rights of Man, 1791.