When I first became interested in politics, virtually all political information was in the newspapers, with a little bit more available on the radio. Then came national television, with its three networks offering nightly news, followed by cable channels offering news and commentary 24 hours a day. Next, the internet stimulated the rise of opinion blogs of an indeterminate number, followed by social media which makes it possible for a political claim to "go viral" to millions of computer, tablet and smart phone screens in a matter of a few hours. In today's campaigns, all of these methods of distributing one's message are being used simultaneously.
This deluge of political messaging, much of which is negative and accusatory, has given rise to a new figure in the media landscape — the fact-checker. There are websites dedicated to the process of checking the accuracy of political claims, along with daily columns filled with confirmations or refutations of those claims. One uses a rating system: something completely true gets no Pinocchios while something misleading that contains a bit of truth gets one or more, up to five Pinocchios for a complete fabrication.
For many voters, this just adds to the sense of information overload. Having not seen an ad in the first place, they become confused and ultimately turned off by an analysis of its truthfulness. Increasingly, the response to political advertising is, "Enough! Who cares?"
This is understandable but unfortunate, because facts matter and should not get lost in the campaign clutter. In an effort to separate important facts from any ties to campaign spin, The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs (full disclosure: I lecture there as a visiting fellow) has joined with a group called Face the Facts to put out one important fact about America in each of the 100 days leading up to the election, starting July 29th.
These facts are available at http://www.facethefactsusa.org/. They can be emailed to friends or put on social media sites such as Facebook and are available for teachers to use in their classrooms, both now and after the campaign is over.
Chosen solely because of their importance as indicators of what is happening in America, and carefully researched for both accuracy and relevance by the university, the facts presented range across a wide array of topics, from the state of our infrastructure to the efficacy of our schools; the demographics of our population to the state of our finances; the health of our citizens to the resilience of our economy, and more.
Face the Facts is the brainchild of Ed Scott, a philanthropist frustrated by the low state of political dialog. The initial response has been encouraging, not only from the good reviews the program has received but from the ways in which the facts are being used. Already, congressional offices have started referring to Face the Facts as a source of reliable information without partisan spin.
It will be interesting to watch how wide a reach this program achieves, since it is completely dependent on the Internet for its dissemination. With social media changing the way Americans learn and communicate, particularly with respect to politics, Face the Facts hopes to use that outlet to become an antidote to the tremendous amount of false information with which we are being bombarded.
Thomas Jefferson said that popular government could not survive unless its populace was educated. I'm sure he assumed that such an education would be based on factual information, not political spin. Face the Facts can help achieve that goal. Feel free to log on every day.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.