Over breakfast at my local eatery this weekend, an argument erupted at a nearby table over "death panels" and the ravings of former Alaska governor and Presidential wannabe Sarah Palin.
"Obama wants to decide who lives and who dies," an elderly woman said, her voice quaking. "The government will kill people."
Her friend tried to calm her down but she wasn’t buying.
"I don’t want my life decided by the government," she continued. "I’m an American. This used to be a free nation!"
In a perfect world, the myth of the "death panels" would have died long ago but this world is far from perfect and lies spread faster than truth in our Internet-driven, Facebook dominated and Twitter controlled society.
In an environment where opinion supplants fact and emotion replaces reason, hysteria rules.
Conservative bloggers often quote Sarah Palin’s Twitter entries or her comments posted on Facebook. They treat each utterance as absolute truth. When Palin came up with the infamous "death panel" post on Facebook, the claim was quickly debunked by media sources that used to be trusted. The Washington Post reported "there are no such death panels mentioned in any of the House bills." David Brooks, a conservative columnist, called Palin’s claims crazy.
Yet polls show many Americans believed the death panel myth and loud, rancorous debate, dominated town hall meetings. The debate became so clouded that a provision for "end to life counseling" disappeared from the Senate version even though that provision provided a valuable service to those facing death.
Ultimately, the media consensus was that Palin had attempted "to leap across a logical canyon," as the conservative bible National Review put it, adding that "we should be against hysteria." But the "death" debate was sucking up much of the political oxygen. President Obama kept denying that he was for "pulling the plug on Grandma." On Aug. 13, the Senate Finance Committee pulled the plug on the provision, with Republican Sen. Charles Grassley saying the idea could be — yes — "misinterpreted."
Perhaps journalists are no more trusted than politicians these days, or many folks never saw the knockdown stories. But this was a stunning illustration of the traditional media’s impotence.
The eruption of anger at town-hall meetings on health care, while real and palpable, became an endless loop on television. The louder the voices, the fiercer the confrontation, the more it became video wallpaper, obscuring the substantive arguments in favor of what producers love most: conflict.
As an ink-stained newspaperman who covers local government and the courts for my hometown newspaper, I deal with people every day who wonder if they are getting "the real story." Because our paper is owned by the Media General news conglomerate, some readers believe that our news is governed by corporate bigwigs in Richmond, VA.
Recently, I wrote on my local news blog about past legal problems of a company that announced plans to build a multi-million dollar data center in our area. I also wrote a story for the paper but some felt the paper had not reported the story accurately while I had, even though I wrote both stories.
The truth may be out there but in this age of information overkill, it gets lost amid the clutter.