The Issue: Accountability attacked over, under and upside-down

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |  May 12, 2013 at 4:01 AM
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American voters are bombarded by messages -- gazillions of messages -- that help them make decisions when they enter the voting booth or decide on an issue.

But are voters making decisions based on facts and knowledge or are the decisions being made simply because of their political party or philosophy?

Also an important question: Are elected officials making decisions based on reality or partisanship?

With huge challenges such as immigration reform and budget issues facing lawmakers in Washington should Americans worry about whether the country is "slipping into a period of ungovernability?" asked Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minneapolis in introducing "The Attack on Fact: American Politics and the Loss of Accountability."

Kathleen Hall Jamison, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of, offered stark examples of politicians and campaign ads attacking "custodians of the knowable" and spoke of the damage undermining and attacking facts can do to democracy.

The public policy process functions well when two institutions are "custodians of the knowable" or keepers of the facts: experts and journalists.

"When these two institutions function, we'll get better public policy," she said because experts are scrutinized and held accountable by their peers and journalists help the public adjudicate the record.

But messaging can upset the cart, Jamison said, citing examples of attacks on the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office as partisan or shaping the current gun control debate based on false statements.

"Viable policy options are foreclosed and good policy is sabotaged when misinformation or calculated deception shapes policy perception and or policy decisions," she said.

In a world after Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decision that swept away federal restrictions on independent "electioneering communications" by corporations and unions, and similar restrictions in two dozen states, "deceptive" advertising backed by oodles of money or the threat of oodles of money "makes it more likely policymaking legislators fear retribution at the ballot box," adding a new actor into the accountability mix, Jamison said.

"Partisan journalism and sophistic political consultants who are willing to spin deception effectively in this moneyed environment, makes it difficult for what is knowable ... to shape policy debate," she said. "Instead, everything becomes infected with a partisan perspective. ... And the expert communities [become] suspect as well."

Misinformation, disinformation or flat-out deceptive messages come in various forms, she said. Think of the Willie Horton ads in the 1988 presidential campaign. Or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calling the CBO a "socialist" entity. Or Former General Electric leader Jack Welch saying the Obama administration manipulated the September jobs report during the 2012 presidential campaign. Or the gun rights groups falsely intimating a bipartisan background checks bill contained language requiring a prospective national gun registry.

"Democrats in red states are more vulnerable to begin with ... and three [Democrats who voted against the background checks] are up for re-election," Jamison said, "you had a lethal combination."

But there are some protections in the system.

"Good journalism ... sees accuracy as a goal. As something to be cherished," she said. "When you have fact-checking of challengers to institutions, you can change the process."

When journalists debunk deception, "you ultimately get more accurate knowledge," she said.

A second protector is debate.

"When you engage each other in debate, you get the public learning," Jamison said. "It's the reason we need to protect debates."

Also, accurate counter-advertising can blunt the effects of deception.

Concerning social media such as Twitter, Jamison said the mini-blog site can be "an alerting function and linking function" during political debates, a function for which mainstream media doesn't have an effective alternative, she said.

"When used well, [voters] become much more knowledgeable," she said. "It's almost as if you have your own personal political reference library."

On the downside, she said, constant tweeting during debates leads her to worry that people are "tweeting the debate without listening to debate."

"I worry about us moving into meta-world in which we're commenting on political world instead of engaging in the political world directly," she said.

Her concern extends to the electorate.

"I worry more about campaigning becoming disconnected from governance than about electing bad people. If the electorate comes to see that elections don't translate into governance, why should we vote?"

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