A resident of West Windsor, a man I know to be a reasonable and thoughtful person, sent me an E-mail the other day asking why our West Windsor and Plainsboro community newspaper chose to print letters to the editor from people who deliberately bolstered their arguments with incorrect information.
The inquiry referred specifically to a letter questioning the wisdom of taxpayer money supporting a nonprofit arts council in West Windsor. Here’s my answer:
First off we would reject letters out of hand that are slanderous or just plain offensive. But in a polite society like West Windsor that’s not usually the issue. It’s usually a finer point, and that’s the first problem: What one person identifies as a factual error another person sees as a difference in opinion. People who disagree with us are always twisting the facts to their advantage. Before long we would need not just an editor of the letters section but also a jury of peers to review controversial submissions.
Some might argue that editorial page editors of newspapers have done and should continue to do just that. I agree that in the salad days of journalism editors have played that judicial role. But today in West Windsor and Plainsboro, the biweekly community newspaper is the only game in town. We believe we can be fair, of course, but who is going to challenge us?
If we don’t allow letter writers to express their views then we soon become part of some conspiracy that is out to thwart the letter writer and others who share his point of view. Even in a relatively enlightened town such as West Windsor there are plenty of conspiracy theories floating around. And every time we refuse to print a letter, or challenge someone’s facts, we add fuel to this fire.
Finally, by allowing letters to be printed factual warts and all, we see exactly what the level of the debate is. If we suppress the inaccuracies, they will continue to circulate on the Internet and through various E-mail chains. It will soon turn into a game of telephone that is never visible in its entirety.
I made this point to the reasonable man in West Windsor but I suspect he will not jump into the rhetorical mudpit involving the arts council. The same reticence occurs at the national level. This past Sunday President Obama said he wasn’t concerned about rumors that he is a Muslim or that he was not born in the United States. He reasoned that if he spent his time trying to dispel this vast “network of misinformation” he would never have time to do the job he was elected to do. Instead, he said, he trusted “the American people’s capacity to get beyond all this nonsense.”
Obama has more trust than I do.
The answer, in my opinion, is that reasonable people need to take the lead in setting the record straight. In this cluttered media environment, lies and distortions told often enough have a life of their own. Aggressive rebuttals are required.
On that note, allow me to express some opinions meant to aggressively counter-attack some of the misinformation that now passes for content in many forums.
The “Mosque” “at” Ground Zero. One of the contributors to this year’s U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue arrived a little late to our reception. Nikki Stern had just returned from a meeting discussing the merits of the proposed Muslim center in New York. Stern, whose husband died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, has written a book warning against the conveyance of moral authority to persons such as her, simply because they are the survivors of a horrific tragedy. Nevertheless we were eager to hear what Stern thought of the mosque. But first she told us what she thought of the media coverage. “There are just two things wrong with all the coverage,” she said. “Number 1 it’s not at Ground Zero. Number 2 it’s not a mosque.”
It’s important to get the facts straight, and it’s also important to listen to the opinions of those who take the facts and still insist that the mosque should not be there. But, in my opinion, it’s possible to subscribe to any of those opinions and still believe that this organization has the right to be there. When we start violating our own First Amendment then the terrorists have scored yet another victory — in the shadow of Ground Zero.
Glenn Beck. As entertaining as this Fox News celebrity and host of the August 28 Lincoln Memorial rally might be, his opinions deserve to be challenged. He says, for example, that his rally was not political but was rather a call for a renewal of faith. But the next day he was on Fox News criticizing Obama for his approach to the concept of “salvation.” Has everyone forgotten the separation of church and state?
Two things about Glenn Beck: He’s a reformed drunk and drug addict; and he’s a born-again Christian (sort of — when he found religion he became a Mormon and some of his fellow travelers from the radical right argue that Mormons aren’t really Christian, but that’s their quibble, not mine). I know a lot of recovering alcoholics and a fair number of born-again Christians, as well. Most of them are humble and respectful of others. But, at least in Beck’s case, the two together become a dangerous brew.
“Failed” Healthcare Reform. The same people who worked so hard to stop it are now spreading the news that it’s not working, even though virtually none of it is in place yet. They cite polls that say the public doesn’t like it, and doesn’t want the government involved in healthcare in any way.
What they don’t say is that the government is already involved in financing the health insurance of most of us. Self-employed people who can afford it can claim the cost as a business deduction. Corporate employees have most of it covered by their employers, who in turn claim the tax break. And the same people who advocate cutting welfare eagerly sign up for Medicare.
But maybe you don’t agree. If so, feel free to write a letter.