The presidential campaign has led to a new, thriving cottage industry. In addition to the dirt-hunting staffers and public relations pros, spinners and surrogates, puppet radio talk show hosts and newspaper columnists, there is now a bustling field of fact checkers.
Citizens who care can visit any of several Web sites to discover if Sen. Barack Obama really does advocate for sex education in kindergarten (he does not) or if Sen. John McCain proposed investing Social Security funds in the stock market (also not true).
This information is more accessible than ever, not just on dynamic Web sites but also via daily e-mails, RSS readers, widgets, Google gadgets and even through messages sent directly to PDAs.
This open exchange of information, made more accessible via new media, is a good thing for Americans, and it should lead to more accountability. But it was born of a culture of dishonesty that is … well, nothing but a shanda (shame).
It used to be that candidates trashed each other by distorting the truth or making personal attacks. But that era increasingly seems like the good old days as candidates and their posses have descended to outright lies.
As Americans, we should be outraged. As Jews, we should be concerned. Nasty speech has never been good for Jews.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes about the power of speech in private and public life in his 1996 book, “Words that Hurt, Words that Heal.”
“Throughout history, words used unfairly have promoted hatred and even murder,” he said, referring to the medieval Crusaders’ use of the term “Christ killers” for Jews. “Once this verbal characterization took hold, it became easy to kill Jews,” Telushkin writes.
In the long run, we need regulation, real campaign reform that requires candidates to behave according to the same values and ethics that are the vote-getting content of their speeches.
In the short run, we are obliged to wise up and take responsibility for ourselves.
We have learned that negative campaigning works, regardless of a candidate’s record or the inconvenient facts of truth. And that’s our fault as voters.
We buy the hype. We love the drama. We crave the negative. And though polls show that most people believe that they are not affected by negative ads, elections prove otherwise.
As the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote, “Intelligent people must examine all opinions.” This is our moment to show our children that we are indeed people who value information over hype.
(Elana Kahn-Oren is editor of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.)