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Crying Wolf Amid Real Disasters

Like everyone else with lim-ited time and energy and attention span, I cherish having trusted sources of information, organizations or individuals whom I know enough about, have followed their track record enough, that when they come out with a pronouncement, a last-minute call-to-action, a judgment call, I can be reasonably sure that Iíll agree with them. Itís the only possible way to keep up in the information age. Honestly, itís the only way itís ever been for anyone who wanted to have opinions on more than two or three issues of the day.

On the other hand, in my professional role as a journalist, itís my job to ask questions of even those sources Iíd be inclined to just trust in my private life. And when you do that, inevitably the comfort zones come tumbling down.

I donít mind the reminders that I sometimes disagree with just about anybodyóthatís just a verification that my mind still works independently. What bothers me is the constant revelations that thereís practically no one I can trust to not wander over the line from legitimate persuasion on behalf of their righteous cause into misleading spin, inaccurate exaggerations, or serious omissions of relevant information. I suppose this too should not be a shock. I canít claim that I know that in the heat of panic or possibility I havenít done the same. But it is saddening, because it poisons the whole well of democratic citizen activism.

Take the upcoming Supreme Court elections in the Capital Region. A concerned citizen in Albany recently noticed that Tom Marcelle, a right-wing conservative lawyer who has worked with the New York Family Planning Council (think support for the Federal Marriage Amendment and hysterical opposition to transgender inclusion in the Albany County human rights ordinance), might have a quiet shot at one of the three judgeships up in this election. Justifiably concerned that this was going to slip under the radar of many voters, our honorable citizen sent out an e-mail message to friends, family, and colleagues, which spread quickly and was taken up by the likes of the RFK Democrats.

The act, and the end conclusion, are unimpeachable. But some of the content of the message is iffy. It lists a series of conservative Christian or right-leaning organizations that it says Marcelle is ďaffiliatedĒ with. From a search of their sites, nearly all of them seem only to mention one of two cases he argued in their news sections, which hardly rises to the level of affiliation. I would hate to be considered affiliated with every place that has mentioned things Iíve written, or even every place that has mentioned them and agreed with me.

There are those who may consider this nit-picking, but a reputation for honesty is not a thing to be taken lightly. I subscribe to the newsletter of FactCheck.org (made famous by Vice President Cheneyís double whammy of misquoting them and getting their Web address wrong in last yearís VP debate). FactCheck.org is about as nonpartisan as an organization gets, which is not to say that I always agree with its staffís conclusions, but as the name suggests, they are about facts and willing to criticize anyone who misuses them. I think they are doing a supremely valuable service.

But I notice, for example, as Iíve seen deconstructions and criticisms of MoveOn and Win Without War ads go by (though by and large they have been charged with less egregious falsehoods than many of their political opponents), that my inclination to contribute to running those ads goes down. Most recently, a big ad in USA Today accusing the administration of lying about the war (which I think they did) takes some of its quotes fairly badly out of context. It becomes more difficult to support something when you know you may end up having to distance yourself from a distortion.

A similar problem is one of sustained drama. As after the flurry of high-pitched opposition to the inscrutable John Roberts, I find itís hard to convince myself to panic about the current nominee to the Supreme Court, even though I know intellectually that he is much worse. This is not exactly the same as advocates playing fast and loose with the facts, but itís relatedóa self-defeating ďeverything is priority number one because people wonít take action otherwiseĒ reaction that is also misleading in the end in terms of level of urgency. Itís self-defeating because people eventually tune out exhortations of a crisis if they hear them every day, just like the priority color tags on e-mail get ignored unless they are used exceedingly sparingly.

Of course the message to be taken away from the crying-wolf problem is that concerned citizens might want to figure out how to spare some energy for the important-but-not-crisis-level causes and actions, to provide incentive for the advocates to give us more accurate information.

And the message about misleading, imprecise, or wrong statements from well-meaning people is that it will make us stronger, not weaker, to call each other on our sloppiness. Good intentions donít get you to the moral high ground.

óMiriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net

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