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Van Jones, Shirley Sherrod and Me(dia): The Parenting Media Meets the Body Politic

Posted Jul 29 2010 2:49pm
Anyone with a laptop and a flip camera can engineer a fake info-virus and inject it into the body politic. Those with cable TV shows and axes to grind can concoct their own realities. The high standards and wise judgments of people like Walter Cronkite once acted as our national immune system, zapping scandal-mongers and quashing wild rumors. As a step toward further democratizing America, we shrunk those old gatekeepers — and ended up weakening democracy’s defenses. Rapidly developing communication technologies did the rest.
Could have been me talking but this was Van Jones, a former White House advisor and no, he hasn't been worrying about exaggerated claims about breastfeeding, the risks of phthalates, sunscreen, vaccines or whatever the scare du jour. At least not in public. He's actually calling out the media maelstrom infecting Washington, the internet rumor mill gone amok taking down government middle managers to VIPS, including himself and most recently Shirley Sherrod, a former Department of Agriculture employee who resigned last week after some right-wing website distorted her comments. His op-ed in Sunday's New York Times does, however, read like a primer on the current state of affairs in the parenting media (Shirley Sherrod and Me). The parallels are bright and shiny, how could I not sit up and listen
The imperative to immediately and constantly churn out news on even the most minor bit of controversy leads news organizations, and partisans posing as news organizations, to cross the line from responsible reporting to dangerous rumor-mongering.
Most minor bit of controversy. Or I might add, most minor, inconclusive, speculative or crappy research finding.

Instead of partisans posing as new organizations we got special interest groups, journalists without science degrees, celebrities posing as experts, researchers greasing their own pockets and padding their vitaes not to mention a whole slew of others eager to tell moms and dads what to do, fill content, and otherwise muck up the media.

The information system gives us more data than ever before, faster than ever before. But we don’t yet have the wisdom in place to help us deal with it.
AHhhh. Data without wisdom. Hallelujah. Pump up the wisdom. Pump up the respect for science too. Amen.

Now Van worries that this info-free-for-all endangers democratic society. Me, don't pretend to know a thing about the birth and death of democracies. I'm just trying to tamp down the drama behind insipid studies and tease out the real results. I'm as patriotic as the next mom at the Fourth of July bike parade thirsting for a iced grande decaf latte, but I do know the consequences of not-quite-right to downright false claims about children's health.

The solution? Of course Jones would like to see more accuracy and a better system to get at it. But short-term, my man Van says we shouldn't rush to judgment. Learn to be more patient. Sounded corny at first, I know, my thoughts too but read on
But the big breakthrough will come not when we are better able to spot the lies. It will come when we are better able to handle the truth about people. We are complex beings; no one is all good or all bad.
Hmm. Sounds an awful lot like how we should approach each new study.

We have to understand that no one can be defined by a single photograph, open-mike gaffe or sound bite. Not even our greatest leaders could have survived if they had to be taken to task for every poorly conceived utterance or youthful demonstration of immature political views.
Nor every research finding put on a pedestal as the final word, the ultimate word, the defacto evidence you are harming your child....gotta take it as one piece of evidence, weighing it against the whole body of knowledge - including future work.

When it comes to politics in the age of Facebook, the killer app to stop the “gotcha” bullies won’t be a technological one — it will be a wiser, more forgiving culture.
Yeah, well, the parallels to politics and public officials being crucified break down there because we've been all too forgiving when it comes to prosaic parenting articles, fear-mongering factoids, dramatic directives and our "unweeded garden" of sorts not in Denmark, but KiddieLand. Been all too patient. Oh, yeah, this time the stench is coming from our computers, magazines, newspapers, the pediatrician's office, the woman who wrote the book and just became the latest media sensation and expert, the mom next to us in line frowning at our Pop Tarts.

And why do we accept the current state of affairs? Are we not eager to hear the nuances, to learn that each and every study is not as dramatic as we've been led to believe? Maybe we've become drama addicts. 

Look at all the cinematic fluff that passes for good reading. The I-Give-My-Preschooler-Vodka-Shots race to worst mommy. The "newsier" pieces like The 10 Things In Your Backyard That Can Kill Your Kid stuff. Hey, I love reading those too - but they're like junk food. Quick, tasty, addicting. And like all good drugs, not so good for rational thought.

Political news geeks who care about the details got their sites. Fact Checker. The Political Junkie. As much as I'd like to see it, no such well-regarded, well-established, well-known, well-funded, etc. place exists for we parents.

Why no outrage over our missing media watch dogs?

Ever wonder why The Big Political Scandal of the day makes the front page much more often than some investigative report on children's health. Gotta wonder why.  Politics trumps parenting like every news cycle. 

Yes, something stinks for sure.
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