Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Disinformation Age

The Information Age—we are told that we live during a time when information is power and that our access to information is unfettered thanks largely to spectacularly advances in technology.

There is no doubt in my mind that the breadth and depth of our access to information is not only virtually immeasurable today, it continues to grow at an exponential rate. Computers are certainly at the center of this information boom, but smart phone technology now puts all this information at our fingertips 24/7 nearly any place on the planet.

I am a self-admitted technology junky. I was dubbed the Alpha Geek when I ran the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. It was the same year “Alpha Geek” came in second place to “Soccer Mom” for the best new term of the year. When I went on to be a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC, I soon found I was inducted as the Chair of the newly formed E-Government Team. I was one of the first to ditch my Franklin Day Planner for a Palm Pilot. And when the Blackberry came out, I was the living embodiment of a CrackBerry head.

There is a certain sense of exhilaration when you can settle the argument over who wrote a song while zooming around the Capital Beltway at 70 mph. Together with the adrenaline rush of circumnavigating Washington, DC, in a car, the combined events can pump more endorphins than running the Boston Marathon.

But, just like the Capital Beltway, the Information Super Highway is subject to traffic jams; accidents; poor signage; unskilled, aggressive, and passive-aggressive drivers; vandalism; law breakers; hoodlums; and thieves. Yes, at times, the Information Super Highway seems to carry as much junk and disinformation as it does valuable goods and services. At the risk of being politically incorrect, dare I say that taking the wrong off ramp on the information highway can be almost as dangerous as making a wrong turn in Southeast Washington, DC.

You see, the problem with the internet is the same thing that makes it so wonderful—it is cheap, unbridled, uninhibited, uncensored, accessible, unaccountable, and run by highly opinionated people. In short, for every true fact found on the internet, there seems to be at least as many distortions or down right untruths presented. And the opinions expressed, oh my. I have heard it said that opinions are like posteriors, everyone has one; but, on the internet two or three seems to be more the norm. I am reminded of what Dick Cheney once said, “You have the right to free speech, but that does not make you right.” Or, as Al Simpson often said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own set of facts.” If ever there was a time for people to exercise discernment and even skepticism in what they read, it is now.

I cannot count the times that someone has forwarded an email to me that was so glaring in its distortions that I felt compelled to correct the Sender even at the risk of offending them. The problem is that it is so easy to Forward an email to your group of friends that we do it without ever thinking that what we are Forwarding may be wrong.

I know there are fact checking websites out there such as and, but it seems even those sites have their own agenda and are not always as objective as they lead you to believe.

The problem seems to have its origins in an age old phenomena—if you see it in print, it must be true. I don’t know when or why this became part of the information-processing norm, but I can tell you that if people read it they believe it is true and that is scary. What makes it worse is a new journalistic ploy of making an outlandish and unsubstantiated statement in an opinion piece for the editorial page. Opinion pieces are not held to the same journalistic standard as regular news stories. The danger is that often times op-eds are quoted in subsequent news stories where the reader assumes the reporter has done their due diligence and fact checked their story.

I have personally been the victim of this new kind of character-assassination journalism when the New York Times published a lead editorial impugning my work and character based on mistruths and distortions put out by an environmental group. In the end, these lies were reprinted nearly 300 times in newspaper stories across the country. Google Paul Hoffman and the Department of the Interior and you will find many disparaging stories about me. They are not true, but they are “in print” nonetheless. And it is amazing how many people who do not know you or your work will believe the worst about you because they read it in print or on the internet.

Unfortunately, these kinds of disinformation stories gain traction in the eyes of the reading public because reporters do not take the time to verify their information or contact the victim of the story to hear their side. There is an old saying that says, “Bad news travels at the speed of light; good news is lucky to get up to the speed of sound.” Unsubstantiated and misinformed emails can go around the world in seconds. And if seeing it in print makes it true, then seeing three or four times in your Inbox must mean it is accurate. As unfortunate as that is, it is real and that is why in the Information Age it is more important than ever that you be appropriately skeptical and take the time yourself to learn the rest of the story. Before you hit the Forward button on your email program, ask yourself, “Do I know this to be true?” If you can’t answer that in the affirmative, then the Biblical advice will serve you well, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thanksgiving--the Forgotten Holiday

As I write this column, it is Thanksgiving Day 2010, but you would not know that if you drove through any downtown, listened to the radio, or watched television. Thanksgiving has become the forgotten holiday. The quintessential American holiday has become subservient to Halloween followed by an immediate transition to Christmas. In my view, this is a shame because despite the recession, regardless of your negative opinions about politics in America, and notwithstanding the unstable state of the world, we have much to be thankful for here in America.

The problem, it seems, is that the retail sector has not found a way to significantly market Thanksgiving. Store shelves can be stocked with Halloween decorations, costumes, and candy and those same shelves are quickly converted to Christmas merchandise. In an effort to maximize potential sales, the Christmas shopping season now begins before Thanksgiving. Even if the buying doesn’t start early, the advertising and buzz for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday begin long before Thanksgiving.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of capitalism, free enterprise, and merchandizing. For decades, the United State’s economy has been largely consumer driven. Jobs and livelihoods are riding on a good Christmas season. I am all for it. I hope everyone makes a million bucks.

But, let us not forget to take time at least once a year on Thanksgiving to give thanks. To reflect on the bounty, blessings, liberties, and inalienable rights that God has bestowed upon us, the residents of the greatest nation on earth. Let us take the time to give thanks to all those soldiers, veterans, law enforcement personnel, and emergency workers, who put their lives on the line for our safety and to secure the blessings we enjoy.

Perhaps it would even behoove us to reflect back on the values expressed by Congress and the first President of the United States when Thanksgiving was established by proclamation back in 1789 as the original American holiday.

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and

Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness":

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we many then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have enabled do establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, AD 1789

- George Washington

I believe those words are more than enough to remind us why we should never forget to stop from time to time and give thanks. And not just thanks for all that we have or are, but thanks to the one true God—the Creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is within them. We should not relegate Thanksgiving to just another day off, or a football tradition, or a celebration of food, or the kickoff for the naked consumerism of Christmas. In fact, as we pause just once a year to give thanks, perhaps as a nation, we should consider taking God off the shelf, recognize and honor our Christian heritage, and give thanks to and bless the Almighty God whom our forefathers freely acknowledged and unabashedly credited for their blessings and rights.

As the Bob Dylan song goes, “But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed; You’re gonna have to serve somebody; Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord; But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Even more to the point, consider what Joshua said to the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land, “And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”