September 1st, 2009

Death Panels and Media Literacy

Today I got an email from, titled simply, “The media.” I opened it up, and here is what it said:

“Over the past few months, two things have become clear about the fight for health insurance reform:

1. Our opponents will create and spread outrageous lies to try to stop President Obama from creating real change.
2. We just can’t count on the media to debunk them.

As President Obama described recently:

“If somebody puts out misinformation… then the way the news report comes across is, ‘Today, such-and-such accused President Obama of putting forward death panels. The White House responded that that wasn’t true.’ And then they go on to the next story. And what they don’t say is, ‘In fact, it isn’t true.’” “

The email then goes on to ask for money to combat the smears by staffing phone banks, canvassing door-to-door and running counterattack ads. All well and good; this is the equivalent of donating to any other public awareness campaign.

But what Obama is really asking for in this email is media literacy. He’s pointing out that just as the media isn’t ending the story with “It isn’t true,” neither are media consumers thinking critically and asking whether the claim is true or false. Instead, they’re absorbing the first part of the story in which some impassioned politican makes inflammatory accusations, or protestors are shown carrying pickets depicting Obama with a Hitler mustache.

The administration is not happy that so many people are so willing to swallow whatever hype the media feeds them, and with good reason. But, this is what happens in a media illiterate society, not to mention one that is in the midst of a polarizing debate on how to spend taxpayer dollars and restructure one-sixth of our country’s economy in a recession. Short term, as far as Obama is concerned, the solution is to throw money into a counter-campaign. The long-term answer is to fund and mandate media literacy in our school curriculums and communities. How about if the Obama administration starts raising money for that?

–Emily Long

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