by Tracy Thompson
CCJ Traveling Curriculum trainer and contributing writer Tracy Thompson is a former Washington Post and Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter and the author of two books: The Beast: A Journey Through Depression and The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children, and Struggling with Depression. She blogs regularly here.
Six months ago, my sister in Georgia stunned me by telling me that she would not vote for Barack Obama because he refused to pledge allegiance to the flag and had ties to the Muslim world. It was my first encounter with this particular story about Obama, and my immediate, knee-jerk reaction was that this was ridiculous. It just smelled like an urban legend to me. Yet to my sister, these allegations were entirely plausible.
History will show that on this particular occasion – one of many in which my sister and I have not seen eye to eye – I was right and she was wrong. And yet the rumors about Obama continue; in fact, they’re listed No. 1 in the top 25 urban legends list this week on Snopes.com, a Web site devoted to tracking down and debunking, or verifying, some of the stuff that gets passed around on the Internet. The rumors were also the subject of a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, piece in the Washington Post last week, which profiled a town in Ohio where Obama’s campaign is having a tough sell for many reasons, including the fact that some people just cannot bring themselves to disbelieve all kinds of things about Obama … even though they know, kind of, that the stories are not true.
Which brings up an interesting question: How do we know what we know?
When I dissected my reaction to hearing the Obama story, here are the reasons, as best I can state them, for why I was skeptical:
1. My sister is a doofus.
2. I hadn’t heard or read anything about this on NPR, the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the half-dozen magazines I look at on a regular basis. If it were true, they would have reported it; the fact that this was the first time I’d ever heard these allegations therefore meant they were not true.
3. I like Obama. I didn’t want it to be true.
4. (I have to admit, this one I came up with much later) It just didn’t make sense. A guy running for president who refuses to pledge allegiance to the flag? Who has secret ties to “the Muslim world”? – whatever that was; it didn’t sound good. Now there was a winning strategy. Why not tell a few racist/sexist/anti-Semitic jokes while you’re at it? Heck – go rob a bank!
Okay, back to reason No. 1 – the “doofus” argument. It was my sister who told me that first-graders were not allowed to touch the grass in front of our school, whereas mature third-graders like herself could walk on it all they wanted. In her view, it was the job of big sisters to know the answers – and, if they didn’t know, to make something up. Thanks to her, my bullshit meter got an early and vigorous testing. Later, after I went into journalism, I came to believe that I am more worldly, more sophisticated, more “streetwise,” if you will, than my sister is. (You would get an alternate theory from her if she were here, but she’s not. So we will proceed.) Yet, while a healthy skepticism of sources is a good thing, a knee-jerk negative reaction is not. Much as it pains me to admit, my sister is not always wrong. So I can’t trust reason No. 1.
Reason No. 3 can be discarded while we're at it; it's just the inverse of reason No. 1.
That leaves reasons 2 and 4.
As a journalist, I used two basic methods of reporting. I either went out and discovered the answers to questions myself, or – if I didn’t know the answer and had no ready way of discovering it on my own – I found the experts who did know. Great reporting, truly ground-breaking reporting, is almost always based on the first kind of inquiry. Still, there are subjects in this world that are so complex, and the knowledge frontier so constantly shifting, that no news organization can afford to retain its own staff of in-house experts on everything. That’s where the second kind of reporting comes in.
“Ask the experts” reporting may sound lazy, and often it is. But done well, this kind of reporting can shed light on extremely complicated subjects, highlight the thoughts of people whose views are worth listening to and present a topic with all the nuance and subtlety it deserves. The hard part is knowing whom to talk to.
But here’s where it gets complicated – because knowing whom to talk to is an endeavor with built-in perils, the main one being that you can grow too smug in your belief in your own informational know-how. You can develop a stable of experts that becomes a list of the Usual Suspects, and you get cut off from new thinking. To feel confident in your ability to find the right experts, you have to constantly re-evaluate the experts you have, asking yourself if they really represent the most important knowledge and whether there’s anybody else out there you should be talking to.
In a way, what I’m talking about is a version of the old “there is wisdom in crowds” argument. I used to cover courts, and watching juries over the years made me a believer in this phenomenon. Juries often operate imperfectly, but it’s amazing how often they work. Even jury verdicts that seemed to fly in the face of evidence in a particular case often reveal some larger truth (and the O.J. Simpson verdict is one example). But the jury system works well only as long as juries are drawn from a sufficiently diverse group of people, with various kinds of life experiences and expertise. My husband, who is a physicist, once was called to serve as a juror in a civil lawsuit resulting from a car accident. You wouldn’t think a physicist would have any special contribution in a case like that, but it turned out that a working knowledge of how bodies in motion behave came in handy in evaluating the reliability of a key witness’s testimony.
But here’s the thing: The need to keep re-evaluating your sources is as true today for news consumers as it ever was in the old days for news producers. When I looked at reason No. 2, I had to admit that I place an awful lot of faith in the comprehensiveness and veracity of my former colleagues in the news business, in ways that my sister would probably find mystifying. And, if pressed, I would have to admit that some of the world’s best news organizations have proved notably deficient in recent years in covering some extremely important stories. In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, for example, most of the mainstream media seemed to fall into a collective trance that prevented anybody from asking skeptical questions about the real evidence on those weapons of mass destruction. It was a blog that broke the story about the Bush administration’s politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys across the country – by combining tips from readers across the country and collating stories from local papers.
In the days before the Information Revolution, Uncle Walt could authoritatively assure us at the end of every weekday, “And that’s the way it is,” and we could rest assured that we knew pretty much all we really needed to know. But that was before the news business blew up into a million little pieces, and before information became the province of niche providers. Today, anybody who relies solely on, say, the “CBS Evening News” for all his information would be missing a lot of stories, as would a person who, like me, tends to rely on a relative handful of mainstream media sources. The information revolution has erased the distinction between news producers and news consumers. Today, reporters are also news consumers, and non-journalists go out and break major stories.
And that makes it all the more important to diversify, whether you are somebody like me or somebody like my sister. I can’t trust anymore that The New York Times will publish all the news that fit to print. (These days, with financial constraints pinching even the most prestigious news organizations, maybe the Times’ slogan should be, “All the news that fits, we print.”) And when you think about it, this lack of diversity is the reason e-mail chains like the ones that spread the Obama rumors are so unreliable. By definition, they are circulated among people who tend to share certain mindsets and/or beliefs, and they acquire their durability from the ability of people up the chain to forward them to people who are, in turn, apt to pass them on down the line. The truly skeptical simply delete them; the credulous are swayed by the fact that some allegation “just keeps coming up.” Which for them, it does, in the same way that a person standing under a waterfall will keep getting wet.
So, in the end, what was my real reason for mistrusting the Obama rumors? Reason No. 4, which boiled down to just plain common sense. And as any journalist can tell you, newsrooms have no corner on that market. (In fact, sometimes you can’t find a shred of common sense anywhere near a newsroom, but let us not digress.)
As they used to say on “The X Files,” the truth is out there. It’s just that these days, there’s no collective spaminator anymore. We are each our own spaminator. There’s just no substitute – either for me or my sister – in constantly evaluating what we hear and read, not just in terms of individual stories but also in terms of how broad our information supply stream is. Because who knows? Next week might bring some e-mail that says Mitt Romney has a secret child bride he’s been hiding out in the wilds of Utah, or that Rudolph Giuliani has been seen in public wearing women’s pantyh –
Wait. Never mind. That thing about the pantyhose is true.