HETRICK: Our daily diet of misinformation leads to bad decisions

April 21, 2012

Imagine this: You’re watching TV. A commercial comes on with grainy, sepia-toned, slow-motion footage of a popular luxury sedan. The car is spinning out of control, about to hit a group of pedestrians on a crowded street corner. They look on helpless and in horror.

We’ll call the car the Lexedes 2000. Millions of people own one. It’s won car-of-the-year time and again.

An ominous voiceover begins (think James Earl Jones or Clint Eastwood):

“The Lexedes 2000: It’s a piece of crap that ought to be a piece of scrap. An aging mountain of metal whose time has come—and gone. A risk to you and yours. Dissed by discriminating drivers everywhere. Call Lexedes at 555.5555. Tell them you’re sick of inhaling their has-been fumes.”

In the closing shot, a competing sedan (call it the Audilac) races along a sleek black highway toward a luscious mountain landscape.

Imagine this: You’re skimming a magazine when you come upon a full-page mattress ad.

The dominant image is an oversized color photograph of a hideous insect magnified umpteen-thousand times. It stares at you with covetous eyes.

The headline, in oversized type, says: “Sweet dreams from Sersoma.”

The copy claims, in frightening terms, that Sersoma, a competing mattress company, has proven prone to bedbugs.

This charge is followed by an asterisk.

The fine-print following a sister asterisk in tiny type at the bottom of the page notes that this accusation is justified by a network TV news story dated Oct. 19, 1975.

Look up the story on the Internet and you discover that it’s a 20-second report not from the network, but from a network-affiliate station in Dubuque, Iowa. The story involves a single mattress removed from a seedy motel that was cited for violations by county health officials.

The ad is signed with a logo for Sleep Tite mattress company, and the slogan “Don’t let the you-know-whats bite.”

Unless you’re one of those proverbial “suckers born every minute,” you’re unlikely to buy your next car or mattress based on negative ads like these.

Unless you’re downright gullible, naïve and uninformed, you’re not going to fall for deception, distortion, bias and hyperbole.

Between now and November, however, candidates, campaigns and super PACs will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on messages much like these. And hundreds of thousands of otherwise-intelligent voters will fall for them.

To wit: A friend sent me an e-mail this week. The subject line said, “Now this is funny.” There was a caption and a link to a video.

My friend’s cover message said it actually wasn’t funny. It was, in fact, sad.

My friend said it was sad because it showed that “Russian leadership has such little respect for our current President that they will not even shake his hand.”

My friend said it was sad because “this clip … has never been reported to the American public by our major media networks.”

 Ever the investigative journalist, I watched the clip. According to the caption and my friend’s message, it showed Russian diplomats declining to shake President Obama’s hand as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev looked on.

Ever the investigative journalist, I fact-checked the clip. Despite folks such as my friend forwarding it here and there in 2012, it was debunked in 2009. In reality, it shows Obama introducing American diplomats to Medvedev. Obama makes the introductions, and the Russian president shakes each of their hands.

The “disrespect” wasn’t reported by the major networks because it never happened.

When I pointed out the deception to my friend, he apologized to me. He didn’t say whether he sent a correction to all who received his original message.

In “The Boxer,” singer-songwriter Paul Simon says: “All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

It’s the lies, jest and hear-what-you-want-to-hear tendencies—as well as apathy and ignorance—that make millions of dollars for political advertising consultants and a mockery of our electoral process.

All too frequently, journalists let the politicos get away with it. Indeed, abbreviated news accounts too often report charges and countercharges without checking facts, considering context or highlighting hypocrisy and hyperbole.

Dick Cheney makes headlines by saying President Obama “has been an unmitigated disaster to the country.”


Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen makes headlines by saying prospective first lady Ann Romney has “actually never worked a day in her life.”


U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock airs an ad saying his opponent, Sen. Richard Lugar, “left behind his conservative Hoosier values.”


A Lugar aide calls Mourdock a “tax cheat” over a homestead property-tax-exemption error that’s been corrected and repaid.


Negative campaigns say whom we should shun, not what we would gain.

You wouldn’t choose a car or mattress that way, why the leaders of the free world?•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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