Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Citizen Fact-checkers

The recent dust-up about the difference Hillary Clinton's recollection of her 1996 visit to Bosnia and footage shot at the time is a good illustration of citizen fact-checkers at work. As I've previously posted, I think we're seeing more and more people responding to political rhetoric with "Yeah? Says who? I'll just check that out for myself."

But it's important to make sure you're really getting the facts when you do so. The Bosnian incident is a good example of that. My goal isn't to make you think one way or the other about what Clinton's claims mean. That's for you to decide.

In this case, it took a little digging to get to the original sources (about 20 minutes of work). Here's Senator Clinton talking about her trip on February, 29, 2008.

And here's the March 17, 2008 version most often excerpted by the media for stories about the controversy.

Finally, here's the original report filed by CBS covering Clinton's landing at the Tuzla airfield.

The video from the 1996 CBS report and Clinton's March 17, speech have been edited, remixed, and re-presented many times, both by individuals posting to the Internet and mainstream media broadcasts. On YouTube alone there are currently over 70 different versions of these clips. The ones from Fox, CBS, MSNBC and other mainstream media programs often include various pundits and talking heads giving you their take on the edited clips.

In detective fiction, after the red herrings have been eliminated, the evidence always points in just one direction, leading to a single inescapable conclusion. Realty -- especially the political kind -- is far different. The evidence is seldom dramatically clear-cut, and even when it is, interpretations can vary.

In the comment field for all of these clips (and their multiple variations), the posters run the full range of opinion. There's plenty of partisan responses, both for and against. Some of them read as if the writers didn't really watch the video -- they came with their opinion already set, and were there just to denounce the opposition.

So the Internet isn't the cure-all for partisan politics.

But it does provide an opportunity for those with open minds to cut through the clutter and get to the information they need to form their own opinions. After all, as Thomas Jefferson said, "An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy."

(Oh yeah? Says who? While the sentiment of that statement ring true, the attribution to Jefferson is spurious.)

- Ralph

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