Facts and opinion too often confused in high-tech media

Anyone else tired of the non-presidential debates that seem to have become the end all and be all in the GOP primary?

We’re all familiar with the spectacle of a bunch of guys (since Michelle Bachmann exited) standing around on a stage, Mitt Romney and the current flavor-of-the-week main contender battling it out in the center while remaining candidates wait on the sides hoping to get a word in edgewise. 

That’s been the format for 19 debates so far.  There’s still nine months to go.

Those still paying any attention may celebrate a brief respite after today’s Florida voting.  Problem is, the spectacle will continue so long as Romney has competition. And at least a couple of the candidates, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, are apparently in for the long haul.

That’s why we’ll continue to be subjected to “debates” which have long since hashed over (and over) any substantive issues and have devolved into political reality TV. Battles with moderators over the sort of questions that get asked when attack ads become the primary means of establishing differences between contenders now create most of the excitement. 

Only Romney has the financing to conduct a traditional campaign with a ground game in every state.  Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Paul are not adequately financed so, for them, the debates have become their campaign. While that keeps them somewhat viable, it litters the GOP political terrain with the sort of debris that it’ll be difficult to evade when the survivor, likely Romney, takes on President Barack Obama.

There’s another major factor that’s making this election cycle more bitter and partisan than in years past and also contributes to prolonged disarray in Congress. That’s the way we choose to get the news upon which we base our opinions.

It used to be that there was a reasonable chance opinions, political and otherwise, might be based upon actual facts. Not so much anymore, now that anyone with a computer, Internet connection and a C+ command of the English language can set up shop as a provider of “news” and commentary.

Once upon a time, our news was based upon actual facts delivered by journalists trained to seek out all sides of a story, to put aside their own opinions, and who were subject to oversight by editors quick to demand that missing blanks be filled in before publication or broadcast. Nowadays, those folks are maligned as the “lamestream media,” and their ranks are declining along with their readers and viewers.

Instead, many of us get the “facts” upon which we base our opinions and rhetoric mostly from folks who share our biases. The old saw about being entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts no longer applies.

Is it any wonder the line in the dirt resembles Monument Canyon when one side seeks its truths from Rachel Maddow and the other from Rush Limbaugh? When the “facts” come from MSNBC rather than NBC and from Fox News instead of CBS, ABC or CNN? When its Rupert Murdoch overseeing the Wall Street Journal and some put the Drudge Report and Huffington Post on the same pedestal as the Associated Press or Reuters?

There’s no reason we shouldn’t consider opinions as well as facts in establishing our own truth. But we ought to be careful about confusing the two as we develop our individual conclusions.

One good example of how things work best came as I considered criticizing an editorial stance of The Daily Sentinel in last week’s column right here on its very own editorial page. 

When I told my own editor, Bob Silbernagel, what I was thinking, there was no protest. 

“We encourage that kind of dialogue,” is what I remember him saying.

After I submitted the column, I heard from Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton.

“I didn’t want you to think you were on shaky ground by taking on the Sentinel’s editorial,” he said.  “(It is) totally appropriate to present a viewpoint that has not been discussed much around here.”

“The point of a newspaper, it seems to me, is to present varied and diverse views. If we present only one view of an issue, we’re failing our readers.”

That, folks, is what we should expect from our media choices if we expect our own opinions to reflect reality.

Jim Spehar practiced journalism as a trained skeptic before becoming a columnist. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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