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HETRICK: Will we distinguish the faux news from the real?

August 24, 2009

In my middle school days, I had a dear friend who was very bright but very trusting. If one of our lot told her something was true, no matter how far-fetched the tale might be, she was prone to believe it.

Kids being kids, we naturally tested the limits of her gullibility, trying out increasingly outrageous “facts” to see if she’d accept them as gospel. More often than not, she did.

One day, upon seeing our friend fall for a particularly big piece of fiction, someone told her she was naïve. In complete earnestness (or the best deadpan I’ve ever witnessed) she replied, “What does naïve mean?”

From that day on, “What does naïve mean?” became our mantra for anyone innocently accepting falsehoods as facts.

These days, there seems to be a whole lot of naïveté going on.

A few weeks ago, for example, former Alaska Gov. Sarah “leave-my-kids-outta-this, stop-makin’-stuff-up” Palin made some stuff up about one of her kids being affected by health-reform legislation. Specifically, Palin said there’d be “death panels” to decide whether babies like her youngest (who has Down syndrome) would live or die.

There is, of course, no such clause or intent in any health-reform legislation, but you wouldn’t know that from the amount of traction Palin’s whopper has gotten in the media, on the blogosphere and in town-hall shouting matches.

In a related vein, there’s been considerable fear and distraction triggered by a longtime health-reform opponent’s statement that current legislative proposals would result in government-ordered euthanasia for American elders.

Despite the fact that this yarn stems from a sick twist on coverage for end-of-life counseling about living wills, advance directives, health care representatives, etc. (something we all should think through and revisit from time to time), plenty of folks—many of them elderly—took the bait. To wit: My 89-year-old aunt sent me the scary chain e-mail she’d received about euthanasia requirements that would surely end her life. And all from a reform initiative backed by the AARP!

What does naïve mean?

Then, of course, there are my favorite don’t-get-it travelers on the health-reform road: folks who oppose single-payer, government-run health insurance for other Americans while quickly adding, “But don’t you dare mess with my [single-payer, government-run] Medicare.” And they honestly don’t seem to see the disconnect.

What does naïve mean?

Those who propagate disinformation, on both sides of the political aisle, know precisely how naïve, uninformed and malleable the American public can be. That’s not entirely or always a product of our citizens’ innocence or gullibility. Many of us are simply so overloaded with information that we can’t keep up or keep it all straight.

Nonetheless, as P.T. Barnum rival David Hannum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and we are them.

There was a time, of course, when journalists had the time, space, resources and respect to sort things out for us. Somehow, I can’t see Walter Cronkite even giving Gov. Palin’s “death panels” the time of day on the “CBS Evening News.” Even if he did, I can’t imagine him doing so without pointing out that the charge had no basis in legislative reality.

But Uncle Walter’s no longer with us and while “that’s the way it was,” it is no longer.

Today, there are plenty of media outlets—mainstream and niche—that will report even the wildest accusation or spin without a response or objective analysis. Even if there weren’t, it’s easy to disseminate fiction and fabrications locally, nationally and internationally via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, text messages and more. Word-of-mouth has grown a bullhorn.

With everyone able to reach millions via their iPhones, Palms, Macs and PCs, and with a weakened Fourth Estate struggling to play watchdog and filter facts, we the people must assume greater responsibilities—to our democratic republic, to one another and to ourselves.

Naïveté is no longer an option. Ignorance is not in vogue. Uninformed is unacceptable.

With so many sources of information available to us, so many parties trying to motivate and manipulate us, so many biases staring us in the face or lying below the surface, passive innocence must give way to ever-increasing levels of informed curiosity, skepticism, learning, listening, understanding, engaging and advocating.

If we don’t do that for ourselves, it will be done unto us by others who don’t necessarily have our best individual or collective interests in mind.

The beauty of the Internet Age is that we have at our disposal more information from more perspectives than ever before.

The consequent devolution and fragmentation of journalism means we have fewer full-time professionals sifting, interpreting, prioritizing and presenting that information in a thoughtful, comprehensible and objective way.

Now, do I honestly believe that we the people will more actively learn, analyze and engage in our democracy?

I’m not that naïve.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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