There is nothing quite like a U.S. Presidential election to highlight the importance of media literacy, critical thinking, and NOT taking media messages at face value. I recently purchased the revised edition of “How to Watch TV News” by Neil Postman and Steve Powers. This book needs to be further revised for our YouTube media landscape and renamed, “How to Watch Traditional Broadcast Television and New Media IPTV.” I’d be willing to write an appendix titled, “How to avoid being conned and duped by emails you receive from your friends.”

child watching television

Like many others, I know several folks who enjoy periodically forwarding email messages they find shocking, upsetting, and/or politically controversial. With these types of email messages, my first step (if I don’t just delete and ignore it) is to check Snopes.com to see if the forwarded message is an unfounded rumor / urban legend or is, in fact, something which actually happened or is true. Today I received an email message from a friend with the subject line, “Extremely upsetting video that you need to watch oppose Obama.” Whether you support or oppose Senator Barack Obama in the current race for U.S. President, the contents of this email along with the YouTube video and other websites it references paint a stark picture for why we need an electorate of critical thinking citizens who are not easily manipulated by emotionally charged disinformation. I find it noteworthy that this email makes several direct references to God and “evil.” This message was crafted to be forwarded along by conservative, religious U.S. citizens who are willing to take the time to view a short “shocking” video, but perhaps not willing or interested in doing some background research to, as Paul Harvey would say, find out about “the rest of the story.” I also find it interesting the email begins by pointing out “This is not on Snopes.” This statement was apparently included to increase the chances recipients will accept the validity of the message’s contents and the message of the video to which it links without taking time to do some basic, independent fact checking. If that was the goal of the author, s/he has failed in my case to restrain me from checking for more information about these claims. The author has, however (sadly) succeeded in focusing my attention for a reasonably long period of time on an “unworthy elephant.” I’ll explain more about that below.

This is the text of the forwarded email:

CHANGE is this the change that God will tolerate? It’s our choice!!!

Thought you ought to see this.

This is not on Snopes. This is horrible and very disturbing.

This is one of the most disturbing things I have ever watched.

How can any person support doing something like this is just beyond me. May God protect us against such evil!

If there was no other reason to oppose Obama, this is.

I hope you will share this with everyone in your address book.

It is hard to believe that this is going on in the USA

This is so very disturbing and heart-wrenching that I had to forward it to you all and I’m hoping you forward it as well. We cannot have someone who cares so very little about the most innocent and vulnerable as the President of the United States !

Click on the link below to watch the video and pass the word.

I am not going to directly link to the video because I do not care to give this type of emotional disinformation, which was deliberately crafted to both inflame and mislead others, a Google search boost via a link here. If you want to view the video, here is the URL you can copy and paste into your browser: uk.youtube.com/watch?v=VIdbYjmbFzo

Indeed this video IS shocking. What the narrators and creators describe IS illegal in the state of Illinois where this incident allegedly took place, as well as every other U.S. state as far as I know. When a human baby is born alive during the third trimester of its life, it IS legally considered infanticide to intentionally cause death to the infant. In the video, producers and narrators assert that because Barack Obama voted against a pro-life bill in the Illinois legislature in 2002, he directly has blood on his hands for cases of infanticide in his state. To push this message over the top, the video producers stage a closing scene in the video where an apparently healthy newborn baby is left alone in a dark room by hospital attendants to die.

If you are alive and able to both see and hear this video, I don’t know how you could watch it and be unmoved. The author(s) of this email are correct. This IS “horrible and very disturbing.” I agree that abortion is horrific. I am not going to make this post into a pro-life rant, however. What I DO want to point out clearly and persuasively is that it is “horrible and very disturbing” – although perhaps not unexpected, sadly, that in our era of YouTube politics we see people pulling out all the stops (so to speak) to distort facts, mislead the public, and subvert the truth. This is, of course, nothing new. I’d recommend Jane Mayer’s new book “The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals” for a greater inquiry about how our current administration has purposefully misled the public to promulgate costly and highly profitable wars which continue to this day.

So what is “the rest of the story” when it comes to this video, and specifically its accusation that Senator Barack Obama is a defender and proponent of both partial-birth abortions and infanticide? The video authors exhort viewers to thoughtlessly forward on the video to everyone they know, pleading “Expose Obama: Send this video on to everyone you can.” The video’s YouTube description reads:

ATTENTION: “I Invented the Internet” Episodes 1-5 are now available on one DVD for $9.99. Help us expose Obama! Show it to your church, at a local theater, or anywhere else you know people will gather.

“Kill and Destroy” Synopsis:
Featuring an interview with Jill Stanek, “Kill and Destroy” explores Barack Hussein Obama’s support of infanticide in Illinois, an alarming decision that was opposed by every Democrat and Republican in the U.S. Senate.

“What does it take to make a man a monster any more?” Illuminati Pictures president Molotov Mitchell recently wrote. “If Americans can watch this video and still support Barack Obama, then America is…beyond all hope.

To this statement by Molotov Mitchell I counter: “If Americans watch this video and fail to both ask questions and seek answers to pursue the real facts in this case, then we are failing as a society to uphold our civic duties to question our leaders, question our media, and question ourselves about the things we are told and the things we believe.”

Here are the results of a few minutes of research about the claims made in this email, this video, and by this apparently highly motivated and media saavy interest group.

The website referenced at the end of the video (nohussein [dot] org) is registered to Scott E. Walton of Fort Worth, Texas. The subtitle of the site is:

No Smears. Just Facts.

Yet as some basic research into the background of this video shows, “smears” is what this media message is all about. Misleading information presented to distort and obfuscate facts and truth.

Who is Scott E. Walton, the registry owner of this domain? What organization(s) does he officially represent? Is he the author of the content on this website, or is his name being used as a proxy for others who have authored and paid for this website?

A simple Google keyword search for “obama infanticide” yields almost 300,000 results this evening.

Search result #4 this evening is to the Annenberg Foundation’s website FactCheck.org article about this topic, which reveals this is an old issue and debate for Illinois voters which is now drawing national attention:

Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes attacked Barack Obama over this legislation during their 2004 race for the U.S. Senate, repeatedly accusing him of favoring “infanticide.” Because of this, Keyes said, “Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.” Nevertheless, 70 percent of Illinois voters did vote for Obama, but now the issue has bubbled up again.

Jess Henig’s concluding paragraph points out that the issue here is NOT that Senator Obama supports infanticide:

Obama’s critics are free to speculate on his motives for voting against the bills, and postulate a lack of concern for babies’ welfare. But his stated reasons for opposing “born-alive” bills have to do with preserving abortion rights, a position he is known to support and has never hidden.

As we begin to sift through and analyze these Google search results, we (and our students) should be constantly asking ourselves about sources of information. Could the source of our information be biased? Of course it is biased! Everyone has bias, and it is exceedingly difficult to be objective in many cases. The question is not IS a source biased, but HOW is a source biased? Note I’m not saying truth is relative here, I don’t subscribe to postmodernism. (As the Barna Group defines it.) My point is that just as the observer effect in physics reveals the limits of experimental objectivity, I believe our objectivity in discussions focusing on social science topics is inherently limited as well.

Who is the Annenberg Public Policy Center (the sponsor of “factcheck.org”) and where do they fall on the U.S. political spectrum? There are a lot of “Annenberg” organizations around the country listed in WikiPedia. Identifying their bias and perspective would be a worthwhile task for a team of students investigating this issue and these allegations.

Hit #1 from this Google search tonight is the August 4th Huffington Post article, “The Next Smear Against Obama: “Infanticide.” That article includes a link to a Relevant Magazine article interview with Senator Obama from this summer, including the following direct quotation from him on this subject:

Strang: Based on emails we received, another issue of deep importance to our readers is a candidate’s stance on abortion. We largely know your platform, but there seems to be some real confusion about your position on third-trimester and partial-birth abortions. Can you clarify your stance for us?

Obama: I absolutely can, so please don’t believe the emails. I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

The other email rumor that’s been floating around is that somehow I’m unwilling to see doctors offer life-saving care to children who were born as a result of an induced abortion. That’s just false. There was a bill that came up in Illinois that was called the “Born Alive” bill that purported to require life-saving treatment to such infants. And I did vote against that bill. The reason was that there was already a law in place in Illinois that said that you always have to supply life-saving treatment to any infant under any circumstances, and this bill actually was designed to overturn Roe v. Wade, so I didn’t think it was going to pass constitutional muster.

Ever since that time, emails have been sent out suggesting that, somehow, I would be in favor of letting an infant die in a hospital because of this particular vote. That’s not a fair characterization, and that’s not an honest characterization. It defies common sense to think that a hospital wouldn’t provide life-saving treatment to an infant that was alive and had a chance of survival.

Although these quotations appear to clarify the allegation that Senator Obama has not and does not support infanticide, it is important and worthwhile to search for information on his official campaign website posted by staff of his campaign about this issue. Again, turning to Google a keyword search for “barackobama.com infanticide” yields the page “Barack Obama | Change We Can Believe In |” and the response to Bill Bennett‘s 30 June 2008 repetition of this Alan Keyes assertion on CNN.

I could go on with additional links and analysis, but this is enough to make the main points I want to share in this post.

1. We must question the information we read, hear, watch, and otherwise receive in all contexts. These contexts include but are not limited to broadcast television, radio, newspapers, textbooks, friends in the hallway, teachers in the classroom, Presidents in the oval office, candidates running for President, videos posted to YouTube, and websites created by individuals located anywhere on our planet. We must ask questions, and we must challenge each other to think deeply and critically about important and basic questions. What is true? How do I know that is true? What is the source? Does the source have an identifiable bias? Recognizing a bias, are their reasons to accept or reject the ideas the source has provided? These are the basics of media literacy and responsible citizenship, and these skills are just as important today as they were in the dawning days of our fledgling republic.

2. We should recognize and subsequently trivialize “elephants” in political debates. No, I am not referring to Republicans or the U.S. Republican Party with this statement. Neither am I saying we should ignore abortion as a political and moral issue. My reference here is to George Lakoff, Howard Dean, and Don Hazen’s book “Don’t Think Of An Elephant! / How Democrats And Progressives Can Win: Know Your Values And Frame The Debate: The Essential Guide For Progress.” The point of “Don’t Think of an Elephant” is that the moment I say or write “elephant” and you hear or read it, you think about it. This is the apparent strategy of Deal Hudson and others (according to the Huffington Post – though I am summarizing and evaluating with this statement) who are promulgating this smear campaign against Senator Obama. By saying we should “trivialize elephants” I mean that when we identify a case where political groups have constructed a straw man, as they have in this case, we should choose intentionally not to spend much time thinking and talking about the straw man.

Do your students know what a “straw man” argument is in this context? Is it important they do to be able to understand and participate intelligently in political discourse this fall? Of course it is.

On a related technological and new media note, I’ll point out that the WikiPedia page for Deal Hudson is being regularly edited and defended by the WikiPedia user “Leviathan58″ who established a WikiPedia account on August 7th and has ONLY edited Deal Hudson’s page. I wonder if this person works for a political campaign, for Hudson himself, or is merely a helpful Wikipedian working to promote objective analysis and avoid bias in the encyclopedia? An interesting question to be sure.

Media literacy! Critical thinking! The ability to intelligently and proficiently validate information we encounter in the face-to-face and virtual world is a skill EVERYONE needs, not simply librarians or textbook authors. Alan November has been championing this idea for years through his presentation “Teaching Zack to Think.” (I first heard Alan share this presentation in February 2002 at TCEA, and my notes from that session are still online on my Texas Tech student website.) Alan was right in 2002 and we are correct today to evangelize the need for our students to be critical thinkers and consumers of information. This message was at the heart of my fall 2003 article for the TechEdge, “Digital Literacy NOW!” It is still a topic about which I am very passionate.

Elections are usually quite interesting to follow, and that is particularly true in societies which have a relatively high level of freedom and openness. Whether or not you support Barack Obama for president or not, I hope you will encourage your own students to be critical thinkers in this election. As I wrote in January 2007, we need to be educating shepherds instead of sheep. To do this, let us consider the ways of the educational coyote. Challenge. Question. Juxtapose. Ask for support. Challenge to defend. Expect hard work and deep thinking.

Too much is at stake in our nation to sit idly by and passively consume carefully crafted messages designed to distort and distract, like this email I received from a friend today.

a distracted youth

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  • http://michalk.id.au/ michael chalk

    Thanks Wesley, both for your impassioned argument and the clarity of your ideas.

    It can be very distressing to encounter the kind of nonsense behind these email campaigns. Even more so when someone gets duped.

    Clear thinking and critical literacies are so vital (in the real world, not just the classroom)!

    kind regards, michael

  • http://castingoutnines.wordpress.com Robert Talbert

    Regardless of what anti- and pro-Obama people do to amplify/distort these issues, it’s not a distortion to say that Obama is pro-choice; his own web site and campaign materials say so. And he continues to waffle about when life begins (witness his tremendous and shameful dodge at the Rick Warren “debate” where he says that the question of when people obtain human rights is “above his pay grade”).

    As a Christian and a dad, I simply cannot conceive (so to speak) of voting for someone who holds these viewpoints — that applies also to McCain if he chooses a pro-choice running mate — and it baffles me when other Christians and parents join in the equivocation and continue to support candidates who plainly deny that unborn children have human rights that trump the so-called woman’s right to choose. (Ny the way, where are these pro-choicers when it comes to other issues of choice, such as school choice?)

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