In other essays I have chastised the media and government for using rhetoric, wiggle words and sometimes outright lies to make their point or to push an agenda. The media is as much to blame as the government for any falsehood if they do not take the time to do simple fact-checking and call on the leaders to be more truthful. If the people cannot rely on the media to be a filter for truth, who can they rely on (besides Jon Stewart, perhaps)?
The newspapers also tend to have a letters column where citizens write in how they feel about certain issues. The topics can be as mundane as football or as vitriolic as hot-button racial issues. But where is the accountability in the letters column? When the government lies or the media lies, we are not surprised but expect better. But should the newspaper allow letters to print blatant falsehoods without some editor’s note underneath? Certainly not.
This has come to my attention i nthe past, but I was particularly incensed today (September 25, 2006) when the Appleton Post-Crescent printed the following letter from Ryan A. Downs of Appleton:
It has been with great interest during recent days that I have followed the goings-on at the United Nations in New York City.
We have had the “devil was here” speech by Hugo Chavez and the ranting of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. It seems also that Chavez saw fit to demonize our current president while speaking to people at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Harlem who had come to applaud his “oil for poor” propaganda scheme.
We’re a very fortunate people in that we’re able to tolerate this type of insanity in our midst. Our founding fathers, more than 230 years ago, saw fit to guarantee free speech in our institutions, enabling an individual to speak his or her mind, free of worry of consequences imposed by government.
It would be very interesting to see if Chavez or Ahmadinejad would allow President Bush to speak in their countries. I suspect that this would be taboo, as their subjects must be totally under control of their respective dictatorships (or in the case of Ahmadinejad, Islamic fascism).
What I find fascinating is that, because of their exposure to free speech, 99 percent of Americans write off Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez as the nincompoops they are.
We can be very grateful that we’re in a country that encourages free speech and diversity of ideas.
Certainly some of this can be dismissed as opinion. But isn’t it irresponsible of a newspaper to let assertions like the word “dictator” be printed without some sort of note underneath? By not stopping such mischaracterizations now, they can easily go unchecked and spread. Tensions between Iran and America are quite high right now, and when we do nothing to stop the American people from adopting racist or nationalist attitudes, we end up in very militant and undiplomatic situations. Have we already forgotten the Iraq war we’re still embroiled in?
So, I did the only thing I felt might make any difference. I wrote the following response letter (unpublished as of this essay):
Like Ryan Downs, I also cherish our country’s freedom of speech. Unlike Mr. Downs, however, I prefer to use it to elucidate the truth rather than muddy the waters. Allow me to share a few observations.
1. As both Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad come from countries that democratically elect their leaders, neither one can rightly be considered a dictator.
2. Ahmadinejad’s “ranting” and “insane” speech was cogent, articulate and raised some very good criticisms concerning the policies of the United Nations Security Council that were not, for the record, outside of the mainstream of views in Western Europe. (A transcript is available at NPR’s website if you have not yet read these inspiring words.)
3. Chavez’s name-calling was juvenile, and this is regrettable. However, with Rush Limbaugh caling Tom Daschle the same epithet (“devil”) and Washington referring to Chavez as a “madman”, his rhetoric is not uncommon in political discourse.
4. Furthermore, given America’s long military history in South America and more specifically President Bush’s support of violent insurgents who attempted to overthrow Chavez in 2002, Chavez’s perspective is easily understandable.
5. I’m unclear how providing poor people with heating oil, with nothing to gain from the act, can be called a “propaganda scheme”.
6. 99 percent of Americans (Downs’ figure) dismiss Iran and Venezuela not because of our free speech, but rather because of a grave abuse of it from dishonest politicians and media figures. Many Americans still believe Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, which has no grounding in reality.
7. And while this is nitpicky, the Constitution guaranteed free speech in 1789, not 1776 as Downs’ 230 years figure implies.
Thank you America and thank you Post-Crescent, for allowing me to exercise this right that Downs and I hold dear.
But if and when this letter appears in the newspaper a week later, will it do anything to change the minds of those who blindly accept what the media and government and letter writers want them to accept? Rational discourse quite frankly rarely wins over passioned rhetoric, particularly when the rational discourse comes after the hearts of the people have already been emboldened by hate.
Should the letters column of the newspaper be held to some standard?