I had been working on an essay about voting, spin, not believing what candidates say, and checking facts when one of my colleagues at Valley Writers suggested I send it in to our local NPR station, WVTF. At first, I was sceptical, but the more I thought about it, I decided I didn’t have much to lose. After all, nothing ventured, nothing sprained.
The long and short of it is that I recorded the essay below, Listen Carefully, on Friday, Oct. 3. It aired on Monday, Oct. 6, the last day for voters to register in Virginia. To access the recorded essay, please go to WVTF.
I believe in the power of words, written, spoken, and thought. I believe that freedom of speech is inviolate. I believe words can be helpful or harmful, supportive or hurtful, constructive or destructive. I believe my beloved grandmother was wrong when she said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me,” because sometimes words can be ugly, demeaning, and misleading.
Words bind communities together and the same words spoken derogatorily tear communities apart. I believe as a crafter of words I have an awesome responsibility to know the difference.
We receive much of our information today intangibly – on television and on the radio. Less often, we receive it in written format, reading yesterday’s news printed on a dead tree with ink that stains our hands, but leaves little impact on our minds.
A few decades ago we began receiving dumbed-down messages — news stories became shorter, language became simplistic, reporting became entertainment. The “sound bite” has done more to damage our understanding than anything else. We rarely if ever hear the entire message.
It is difficult if not impossible to reach an informed decision from a sound bite. It is too easy to skew a message in less than fifteen seconds.
A dozen lake friends have met regularly this election season. We watched the early debates, the main convention speeches, and the most recent Presidential debate. We represent both major parties; several remain uncommitted. And we have been watching the political ads more closely this year than in elections past. I am horrified at the misrepresentations and outright lies fed to us as truth.
Last weekend, this group argued loudly after the final credits of the first Presidential debate faded from the screen. I was stunned at the number of my friends who still believed lies that had been debunked months earlier: the Obama Muslim hoax, the Palin “thanks but no thanks” misrepresentation, and McCain distancing himself from President Bush.
Suddenly, we became fixated on a political ad, a black and white picture of a bearded Tom Perriello, darkened and distorted with striations across his face. Each point the voice-over narrator made was accompanied by a crack like a gunshot. No mention was made of the fact that the photo was taken when Mr. Perriello was in Darfur working with refugees. And then came the tag line: “I’m Virgil Goode and I approved this message.”
The argument stopped. It didn’t matter whether we supported Mr. Goode or Mr. Perriello. We gaped in shock. We wondered if voters would check the facts or believe the fear factor clearly implied with this spot.
As sentient beings we have the onus to review and think carefully about the messages fed to us like so much mush. We have the responsibility to sound off, make our voices heard, and combat disinformation.
The Constitution provides us the right to freedom of speech. It does not provide us with the right to lie, misrepresent, or spin. It is up to us to listen carefully, check facts, and repeat what has been verified as truth.
I urge all of us to question the information we receive. When we embrace the truth, we can work as a group to regain the high ground we once held in the world. If we succumb to negativism and believe the lies, we belong in the mud. To prevent that from happening, I urge all citizens once again to exercise a sacred privilege and vote.
This I believe.
Update: On Oct. 9 I learned that this essay is being used in a Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University class on news reporting as an example of what everyone reporter should consider before putting fingers to keyboard. Thank you, Bill Loftus.