Dodging issues and constituents
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the proliferation of “fake news” played a prominent role in shaping voters’ views, and is undoubtedly the buzzword of the year.
These days, anyone with a computer, some motivation, and a modicum of grammar can “report” whatever they want, accurate or not. If the content is bombastic enough to grab attention, the ubiquity of social media lets falsehoods spread quickly, and run rampant: obfuscating the truth and steering minds away from fact-based discourse. Combine this problem with confirmation bias — the tendency to seek information to confirm one’s worldview — and you have a recipe for misinformation disaster.
True “fake news” is the deliberate spread of misinformation with the intent to mislead, and it is a real problem. But someone ought to be sure that our elected officials understand this definition, because the “fake news” label is being used as a weapon in the new war on the press.
Since President Trump’s inauguration, he and his staff have attacked the credibility of the press on a nearly daily basis. This practice seems to have trickled down to the Colorado statehouse.
State Sen. Ray Scott’s “fake news” flap involving the Sentinel has been well-covered, but it’s important to summarize the exchange: the Sentinel published an editorial urging Senator Scott to advance an open-records bill. Sen. Scott didn’t respond with his version of the chain of events, or offer argument as to the merits of the bill. Instead, he unfurled a Twitter tirade, calling the Sentinel “fake news” and the editorial a “fake news story.” (Obviously, the editorial was not “fake,” nor even a “news story.”)
Politicians from the president downward are brashly using their podium to attack the press for having the audacity to publish content they do not like, quashing debate. Whether by design or by accident, politicians labeling unwelcome information as “fake” also implicitly encourage supporters to ignore information that conflicts with preconceived notions. If pertinent information is ignored as “fake” by voters, then officials are free to be undeterred by facts, unencumbered by oversight, and can therefore do whatever they want.
In a parallel post-election development, citizens around the valley, state, and nation have been demanding accountability from their elected officials. Between flooding representatives’ offices with phone calls and directly protesting policies, I have never seen such civic engagement in my lifetime — and that is intrinsically a good thing.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s response to this engagment has been shaky. First, after protests and a deluge of calls to his offices regarding his vote for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (whose family contributed more than $45,000 to the senator), Gardner gave several public statements blaming “paid protesters from out of state” for the activity.
I know that it is frustrating to deal with phones ringing off the hook (from people who mostly don’t like what you are doing). I know that Sen. Gardner may feel cornered by his constituents. And I know that’s a tough part of the job. But accusing your constituents of being paid protesters is just a bad look.
Next, activists and constituents have asked the senator to attend town halls here in Colorado during Congress’s recess to explain his policy positions and his votes for controversial Cabinet nominees, including Ms. DeVos. So far, Sen. Gardner has declined, opting instead for controlled appearances with small groups or telephonic town halls.
Mr. Gardner is not the only politician spooked by recent viral video from boisterous town halls around the country. But an unlikely source, Chris Christie, nailed it: “I understand why members of Congress don’t like [town halls]. But you know what? You asked for the job. Go do it.”
Hear, hear. If you don’t have the courage to face your constituents, then don’t be a public official. If you need security personnel at meetings with your voters, that’s fine. But do not use that as an excuse to shirk your constituents. You are paid to vote on policy positions that change constituents’ lives. You are paid to act in their best interests. You are paid, also, to take on constituents’ anger when you fail to do so.
As a final matter, I should note that I find plenty of faults with the Democratic Party’s public and media engagement. But the GOP currently controls the White House, Congress, and the bulk of governors’ mansions and statehouses. With that power comes responsibility to constituents — and to the truth. And our Colorado representatives should know that we are watching closely.
Sean Goodbody is a Grand Junction attorney representing injured workers all over western Colorado. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.