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Oppenheim: Facts Matter

At a weeklong conference in Washington, I got a chance to meet Jon Greenberg.

Greenberg is a writer for Politifact. Politifact staffers do something simple and powerful; they investigate claims made by politicians. You may have seen their stuff; they post ratings which range from True - to Half-True - to Pants-on-Fire when a claim is off-the-charts ridiculous. Greenberg discussed how to check claims and how that can be taught. Basically, the process includes contacting the politician or campaign, and asking, where is your evidence? Politifact writers get context from databases and go to experts for analysis. Greenberg described a non-partisan, data-driven approach to journalism, where one gadfly reporter can do homework and verify what someone claimed.

I liked this guy. What he said spoke to a weakness in other media, where too often, political statements or falsehoods float without counterweight. But he also reinforced the notion that the role of the fourth estate is to speak truth to power, to hold government officials accountable. Greenberg’s review of the fact checking process affirmed my ideals, but it also led me to think about something worrisome.

This campaign season has apparently opened the door to a growing trend among some voters – and that is - facts are not important. If candidates contradict themselves, or if candidates make unsubstantiated, wild claims, no matter; some people simply don’t care and never mind the truth.

I really can’t know how pervasive this attitude actually is, but it’s a theme repeating itself over and over again.

In defense of media, I want to be careful not to go too far. I’m often reminded that news organizations make mistakes in judgment and accuracy, too often swayed by the crushing pressures of the marketplace. But, as one scholar told me, one of the things that really makes America great is a rambunctious press that operates independently and without fear.

Indeed, what’s made America unique over our history of nearly 240 years is our status as a superpower democracy, a society strengthened by a press that can shed light and at times, disprove lies. However, that power exists not only in the media institutions alone. It’s up to us to hold dear that words and truth do in fact matter quite a lot. Once we let that go, we open ourselves to the worst kind of manipulation. Or to put it in Politifact terms, it would be as if everything were indeed Pants on Fire.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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