I went to see Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 this weekend. It was a powerful movie. For those people who already believe the War in Iraq was a bad move, it only gives more ammunition to confirm their position. And yet, as I watched the film I found myself deeply disturbed. The film distorted certain facts by providing little context; used editing techniques to suggest seamless connections that actually were "jumps in logic"; pulled at people's heart strings (my own included) and yet did not give any air time to the complex issues surrounding Iraq and terrorism. In fact, it was not so much an argument or a helpful illumination of a tough situation as it was a long campaign message – only this time I had to pay to get in. It succeeded in squeezing out any ambiguity of a situation riddled by inherent tensions and competing options. Recently, the Washington Post ran an article that showed how George Bush and John Kerry routinely use different facts to talk about the economy. Kerry emphasizes that 1.8 million jobs have been lost and that newly-created jobs pay less. George Bush argues that the economy is on the move, producing new jobs in recent months and showing signs of recovery. The story showed how both sets of facts are true. And yet both candidates argue as if the other set of facts simply do not exist.
There’s been a lot of talk about fact-checking during this campaign. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania has an entire website devoted to checking the facts on every political ad that appears on the air or in print. Accuracy is an important piece of running a campaign, but we must focus on what creates genuine accuracy. Focusing on single facts alone never reveals the whole story. In a country where we are told we are divided, the question is whether people can see beyond their existing arguments; whether they can consider the full picture and its competing factors; whether they are willing to learn anything new about a situation; whether they can break through to reach some new common ground.
So long as public discourse revolves around distorted facts, and so long as it plays with people’s context, we undermine people's sense of reality. This causes people either to opt out of public life entirely (see the 50% of people who don’t vote) or to simply choose up sides before engaging. It allows all of us to lock into positions before hearing another side. Both Michael Moore's film and the Bush/Kerry ads would benefit greatly if they told people thewhole story and then made their argument from there. If they said, "Look, here's what is really going on with the economy -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- and why I think my opponent's proposals won't succeed in taking us forward, and why mine will." Then people won’t feel as if they are being so manipulated. They won't feel that the only choice they have is to latch on to one limited position or another, simply because there is no viable alternative. Then they won't feel that their reality has been distorted simply because someone wants to pursue their own point -- at any cost. We are indeed divided on many issues. But we are needlessly divided at times -- concocting arguments, stories, and out-of-context facts that push us into corners, inflame our irrational emotions, and strike fear into us. We need to start with the whole story and argue from there. So, let's have a real debate about issues such as the War in Iraq and the economy (and others). Let the real arguments fly. Then let's see where the chips may fall.