Monday, September 19, 2011

Trust with Verification

“Trust, but verify” was a signature phrase adopted by President Ronald Reagan to describe his Cold War policy towards the Soviet Union. I apply it today with increasing frequency because we live in an era when lies and half-truths about socio-political-economic news and events can be disseminated via social networking with alarming success, and few people seem concerned enough to verify questionable content before forwarding it and becoming pawns in a political system wrought with deceit.

The fact is, most of my family and friends do not have the time, or make the time, to fact check controversial or questionable items before forwarding them via email or Facebook.

Retractions are rarely as effective as the original message if they are sent at all, so falsehoods go unchecked through cyberspace for what can be perpetuity. The creators of these stories (politicians, lobbyists, radicals, and probably the Sean Hannity’s of this world) know this, and use it to their advantage to fulfill their political agendas. It is the epitome of self-righteousness because they are willing to lie in order to derail their opposition.

Three examples of “cyberfibs” crossed my desk today that prompted me to write this blog. My friends and family did not originate the falsehoods, but they certainly did not verify their sources before hitting the send button.

Earlier this morning, a friend sent me an email about President Obama supporting HR 4646, the resolution that would apply a 1% fee to all bank transactions. Here is the Snopes link refuting that story: The One Percent Solution. He did apologize, saying that he did not fact check the story because he trusted the friend who sent it to him. See the pattern?

Next, my cousin acknowledged (via Facebook private message) the link I sent her refuting an email she sent about a shop owner who closed his store in honor of a Muslim “martyr” killed on 911: Store Honors Islamic Martyr. The shop owner did close his store in honor of a Muslim, but that martyr lived 600 years ago! “Okay, thanks,” my cousin said. I have to wonder how many of her family and friends forwarded that message without verifying its content.

Finally, another friend posted a warning on Facebook about not joining the group "Becoming a Father or Mother was the greatest gift of my life" because they are “pedophiles” trying to access your photos. Snopes refuted that one as well: Facebook 'Greatest Gift Group.

This trend is not new; it’s been happening for years via email, but Facebook has allowed it to morph into a more accessible form of communications.

Perhaps you remember the email about Budweiser pulling its entire product line out of a convenience store because the Muslim owners were celebrating the 911 attacks. Pure fabrication: This Bud's Not for You. Or the one about Lee Marvin and Captain Kangaroo being decorated WWII heroes: Captain Kangaroo Court. How about the one about Ollie North and Osama bin Laden? Oliver Twisted.

I am lucky. My work in public relations has prompted me to practice critical thinking and question the validity of dubious stories. I take nearly everything with a grain of salt until I have verified it myself through other sources. In fact, I even question the accuracy of Snopes sometimes.

My second reason for being careful is that I got burned circa 1999 because I forwarded an email to hundreds of people (including business contacts) from a frantic mother about her missing daughter. I sent out a retraction that same day after I learned the little girl was found at a neighbor’s house a few hours later, but was chastised by one business contact because he thought I was joking. Interestingly, I’ve received that same message more times than I can remember over the last dozen years, and it always reminds me of my faux pas.

On a related matter, one of my favorite newspaper columns was Jon Carroll’s 1990 piece called “Still Not in Baghdad” in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here is a link to my Facebook Notes page where I posted a transposition: Still Not in Baghdad. It’s a powerful and humorous piece if you take the time to read it, and it has everything to do with questioning what we see in the media.

Free speech and modern communications tools allow us to act like micro news bureaus because it doesn’t take a lot of expertise to forward, copy and paste, or generate links to stories with supporting photos or videos. Furthermore, many of us can pen our own stories. However, there is an inherent civic responsibility built into that power and privilege: we own it to each other and our democratic society to only forward stories that can be verified with a reasonable amount of effort, and more importantly, write stories containing factual information that supports our point of view.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Casey Anthony Jurors: an Act of Citizenship

This week's acquittal of Casey Anthony reminded me of these words spoken by actor Michael Douglas as he portrayed fictitious President Andrew Shepherd in the film The American President:

"America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.' Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the 'land of the free'."

The jury’s “not guilty” vote was a good example of advanced citizenship, and I admire them for following the guidelines set forth by our constitution in spite of their personal feelings about Casey Anthony’s culpability.

Imagine having to answer to friends and family about why you didn't vote “guilty”. Imagine the feeling of having to carry the knowledge that you helped acquit a woman who probably murdered her two-year-old daughter.

I also wonder about defense attorney Jose Baez. I understand that all defendants are entitled to fair legal counsel and that attorneys have a job to do, but what did Baez think and how did he feel when Casey hugged him seconds after the acquittal? Was it the embrace of a woman who betrayed all decency within his inner sanctum, or did he actually believe she was innocent?

Most importantly, what is Casey going to do with the rest of her life? Will the acquittal be a catharsis that enables her to do something good with this unexpected freedom, or will she simply revert back to the attractive young woman who always seems to land on her feet like a cat with nine lives, and who weaves a web of lies to serve her dubious agenda?

I am not angry about her acquittal because she will answer to a higher authority than the State of Florida, whether it is in this lifetime or beyond.

As is typical, controversy has a way of asking more questions than providing answers. I’m pretty sure Casey Anthony will transcend the stereotypical “15 minutes of fame” because she is forever woven into the fabric of our collective consciousness. Like it or not, we will hear from her again, but I’m not sure anyone will be listening.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Winning at All Cost: an American Addiction

The recent twelfth-inning collision involving San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey reaffirmed my theory that Americans are addicted to winning. It’s a position I have long considered, but the final straw was witnessing that beefy 24-year-old writhe in pain and pound the dirt as he sensed an extensive amount of damage to his left ankle (fractured fibula and three torn ligaments).

Winning in America is a double-edged sword: the desire to win makes us great achievers, but it may be desensitizing us into heartless people with no concern for the consequences.

When asked about his decision, Scott Cousins of the Florida Marlins said he aimed a shoulder at Posey’s chest because it gave his team a chance to win. “I wanted to knock the ball clean out of his glove, but I certainly didn’t want him to get hurt,” said Cousins. I believe him, but I am troubled by the fact that he was willing to risk maiming Posey for the sake of winning one game.

Cousins did not violate Major League Baseball (MLB) rules, but it does not mean his action was ethical or of sound judgment. Many a pundit and sports fan agreed Cousins had the right to lay Posey out. “Too bad for Posey, but that’s baseball,” they collectively sneered.

I saw it as one player taking a free shot at a competitor who placed himself in a vulnerable position during one game in a 162-game season. On the other hand, one could argue that single victory might be the difference in his team making the playoffs.

The legal profession has an interesting perspective on such situations. Per, “in contract law, an unconscionable contract is one that is unjust or extremely one-sided in favor of the person who has the superior bargaining power.”

Life is About Decisions
Most people love winning, but some are not willing to win at the expense of others. I’m sure Donald Trump would disagree. So would Leo Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who said, “Nice guys finish last,” in 1939.

Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for wanting to win whether they are on the field or beyond. Each of the Philadelphia Phillies earned an extra $365k on top of their salaries for winning the 2009 World Series. Winning a friendly bet or board game is fun and gives us bragging rights while being elected to congress means one can contribute to society, or from a more cynical perspective, line one’s pockets with cash and make lucrative business connections for life.

Life is about decisions, and Cousins decided that the benefits of trying to score the go-ahead run in a regular-season game outweighed the risks. If you agree with Cousins and those who exonerated him, then you need to explain why other MLB players would have chosen to slide in that situation. I believe the thoughtful person does a split-second cost analysis, and concludes that the risks of instigating a collision are not worth the benefits.

Winning is an American Way of Life
When it comes to competing on the playing field of life, Americans have lost sight of the forest. It’s not good enough to simply “give it your all” anymore. We must win at all cost. Consequently, we get caught up in the moment, and allow our good judgment to be clouded by adrenalin rushes that release post-victory payoffs of more adrenalin. I believe that is what happened to Cousins.

For some Americans, it’s a matter of succumbing to the pressure of living in a country where winning without concern for the consequences is the norm. For others, meaningless everyday victories make them feel in control of a world that is out of their control. (Consider the immature driver who drag races unsuspecting motorists at traffic lights just for the sake of being first.) Psychologists may say some of this behavior is caused by the release of repressed anger, but not everyone playing the “win game” has anger issues.

For the majority of perpetrators, however, it’s simply about “making the deal” and “winning the game”. Perhaps Americans have been conditioned to win after generations of urban living because there seem to be more issues with dysfunctional winning in our most populated cities and on our most crowded highways where aggression is a way of life.

When Cooler Heads Prevail
Thankfully, there are some Americans with cooler heads. Thankfully, there are some Americans who slide at home whether it ends with them being called safe or out. They slide because winning is not worth hurting themselves or others, and they’ll even do it while no one is watching because it means they are being true to themselves.

Those people give me reason to hope, but that optimism rides on who wins the American game of life: the proponents of winning at all cost, or those who try to win within reason. Perhaps it really is about winning after all, isn’t it?