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Tourist traps and political lies
Travelers nowadays want authenticity. Why doesn't that matter as much to voters?
For a while, a giant seal looked out over the South Dakota prairie. (Photo from Library of Congress archive)
Along the road just outside my hometown, there used to be a 30-foot cement seal — the animal, not the mark of authority — seemingly ready to balance on its nose a big red ball that you might imagine being tossed down to the western prairie from a passing airship. Consider the oddity: That giant seal stood on a plateau at the edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills, its neck arcing toward the Badlands, a 20-hour drive, pedal to the metal, from the nearest seal habitat.
Why would you site a seal in South Dakota? Well, to lure curious passers-by, of course. The seal drew people to what’s known in the hospitality industry as a “tourist trap” — an attraction that exists to entice passing out-of-towners to spend money. In those days, some two million tourists annually passed the little aquarium that the seal advertised. Further up the road, you could stop at Gravity Hill, Gravity Spot or Dizzyland USA — tourist traps that promised to show you, for a fee, gravity-defying phenomena: balls rolling uphill, water slurping from below to above, people changing height before your eyes. Or you could stop at a place to pan for gold, like the prospectors of the 1876 Gold Rush, and maybe be lucky enough to get some glittering iron pyrite in your gravel. At least the aquarium delivered real seals (and dolphins and penguins). Weightless balls and water, though? Riches from a creekbed? No.
Tourist traps aren’t what they used to be, I’ve now concluded, after 10 days just spent in the American West. There are still plenty of attractions aimed at folks passing through, but the modern tourism industry has learned that today’s travelers want authenticity.That’s why cars line up to visit New Mexico’s indigenous pueblos, with adobe buildings hundreds of years old, but just a single imagined gravity-defying attraction remains open in the Black Hills. As for the giant seal, it has vanished, along with its misplaced aquarium.
Don’t think for a moment, though, that this means we’re less gullible than the tourists of my youth. If Americans weren’t eager to embrace myths and falsehoods, our society wouldn’t be so divided along political lines, because it’s the believable lies touted by politicians that fuel our divisions. It seems, in fact, that we delight in being deceived.
Yes, of course, we’re talking first about Donald Trump, because there has never been as eager and shameless a liar in American politics — nor one so hypocritically embraced by the political establishment players who know better. It’s not true, as he claimed two months ago in a CNN interview, that his presidency provided “the greatest economy in the history of the world” (three presidents in the last half of the 20th century alone led stronger economic growth), nor the biggest tax cuts in history (those under Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were bigger), nor, of course, that he really won the 2020 election.During his term in office, the Washington Post tracked and set the record straight on more than 30,000 Trump lies, big and small.
To be sure, duplicity is a bipartisan sport. It’s also not true, as Joe Biden declared in his State of the Union address this year, that the “average tax” for billionaires in the U.S. is 3 percent (actual average tax of the top 25 billionaires: 16 percent),nor that during his term Social Security recipients got their first benefit increase in a decade (inflation adjustments have in fact raised benefits in nine of the last 10 years).
Still, a fair analysis yields the inescapable conclusion that today’s Republican party has embraced falsehoods and deceptions at a level unseen in American history. Distortion has become, in fact, the party’s prime tool for both governing and campaigning. The U.S. House is moving toward votes on bills to dismantle federal law enforcement and the tax collection system, on the wholly false premise that the FBI and the IRS have targeted conservatives, while the party’s leaders, like New York’s conspicuously unprincipled Elise Stefanik, carelessly tout frivolous claims that the president has taken bribes. It is no longer the Grand Old Party of Dwight Eisenhower, an idol of my childhood, who declared in his first Inaugural Address, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”
What’s troubling is that the lies have stuck. A March CNN poll found that 63 percent of Republicans (and those who lean Republican) believe Biden didn’t legitimately win the presidency, despite the absence of any evidence supporting the idea.And with Republican officials for years backing Trump’s claim that the federal government unfairly probed Russia’s interference on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 campaign, trust in the FBI is now much higher among Democrats and independents than among Republicans — because Republicans believe the FBI is part of a “deep state” conspiracy that favors the left.
Is it a left-wing bias that leads to the sense that conservatives are more likely to hang on to such misperceptions? Actually, it is not. Communication researchers R. Kelly Garrett and Robert M. Bono, both of Ohio State University, published an important study two years ago concluding that conservatives distinguish fact from falsehood at levels below those of liberals — in other words, that the right is more susceptible to lies than the left. Citing “conservatives’ propensity to hold misperceptions” that the study affirmed, the authors blamed the over-abundance of lies from right-wing information sources, since “the most widely shared falsehoods tend to promote conservative positions, while corresponding truths typically favor liberals.”
A solution, Garrett and Bono wrote, might lie in “reducing the flow of conservative-favoring misinformation.” That is, conservative leaders and right-leaning news media could change the misguided tendencies of those on the right by more responsibly promoting the truth. In an understatement in light of what we’ve lately learned from the Fox News $787 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems over Fox’s fraudulent coverage of the 2020 election, the authors note, “(W)e cannot rule out the possibility that conservative media generate or amplify misleading content in response to consumer demand.” Fox to its friends: You like lies? We’ll give you lies!
But we can’t blame the right-wing media and truth-averse politicians for all of this. The human brain, scientists say, is ill-equipped to combat lies. “By default, people will believe anything they see or hear,” cognitive psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky told The Washington Post last year. And once a falsehood is stored in the brain, it exists there even if a correction is stored, too — making knocking out the untruth nearly impossible. There is evidence that “we’re running up against basic limitations of human memory when we’re giving people corrective information,” Purdue University psychologist Nadia Brashier told the Post.
Since debunking a lie is so hard, then, what we really need is a sort of “prebunking” — namely, stopping lies before they’re spread. Before the digital age — which coincided with the founding of Fox News and the rise of right-wing talk radio — that lie-stopping task fell largely to a media ecosystem that was ethically committed to truth-telling. For all of the failures of the media in those years, the era of powerful nightly network newscasts and thriving newspapers in every community across the country stood as a bulwark against the worst excesses of the distortions that now permeate our politics and threaten our democracy.
This is why it’s essential to rebuild the decaying system of media across the country. Since 2004, 2,100 newspapers have closed in the U.S., and two newspapers are now shutting down each week, on average. There are too few reporters performing the watchdog function that keeps lies from happening, on both the national and the local level: The number of reporters per $100 million in local government spending has fallen by two-thirds, media activist and researcher Steven Waldman reported this spring in Washington Monthly.
At the same time that the legacy media industry has collapsed, the American people have turned away from the moral force against wrong that was for centuries exercised by organized religion. In fact, perversely, evangelical Christianity is now the foundation of support for the right-wing disinformation machine. No wonder the younger generation of Americans is leading the whole of society toward religious disaffiliation, with the consequence of a further loosening of even the modicum of a standard of truth-telling that the church used to provide.
The solution isn’t to give up and join the destructive disinformation trend, on either the left or the right. It is to redouble our commitment to the task of stopping lies before they’re spread. Here’s a simple to-do list for every citizen who cares: Back honest candidates who can beat the charlatans, support news organizations that hold public officials accountable, turn away from social media players that don’t energetically fight misinformation.
It’s hard to imagine that the same people who demand authenticity as tourists would be willing to shrug and ignore the need for it in public life. If we’re unwilling to be deceived by balls supposedly rolling uphill, and bothered by the notion of a seal finding its home on the prairie, we ought to be repelled by the proliferation of falsehood as an instrument of governing, and determined to do all we can to stop it. The stakes are a lot higher than the few bucks you might have wasted at a tourist trap.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Fort Myers, Fla. (Fort Myers News-Press, news-press.com)
Quincy, Mass. (The Patriot Ledger, patriotledger.com)
Louisville, Ky. (Louisville Courier Journal, courier-journal.com)
Reno, Nev. (Reno Gazette Journal, rnj.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Yet another reason to avoid Florida
SAL is coming to Florida, and it’s not going to be good for you. Samantha Neely reports in the Fort Myers News-Press that a dust plume from the Sahara Desert is descending on Florida, with potential health impacts (not to mention clouding sunset views). The Saharan Air Layer, a mass of very dry and dusty air that forms each year in Africa, has been drifting across the Atlantic, and is now poised to drop over Florida. SAL carries upwards of 66 million tons of dust annually over the ocean and the Americas. People with asthma, pulmonary disease and respiratory infections are especially at risk, Neely reports. Experts warn people to stay indoors as much as possible, or wear a mask outdoors.
Local schools and state weigh cellphone ban
Massachusetts education officials are encouraging school districts to restrict or ban students’ cellphone use, reports Joel Barnes in The Patriot Ledger. It’s a controversial topic, since the devices can be useful for research, but school leaders say the phones often distract from learning, decrease in-person communication and put students at risk of cyberbullying. The commonwealth’s education commissioner said he likely will create a $1 million fund to help districts implement cellphone restrictions, though policies are “not a mandate at this time.”
Anti-trans law divides state officials
Kentucky’s education commissioner at its attorney general are seemingly at odds over how schools must respond to a new state law that’s part of a nationwide Republican push targeting LGBTQ people. Olivia Krauth reports in the Louisville Courier Journal that the AG’s office has issued an advisory that the law requires blocking all conversation about gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom. But the Kentucky Department of Education had earlier pointed to the use of “or” in the law as giving school districts a choice of either the outright ban or, as an alternative, stopping any lessons regarding human sexuality before the sixth grade. The education commissioner said the issue will be decided in court, unless the state legislature clarifies the law’s intent.
Big project aims to grow domestic lithium production
About 50 miles north of Winnemucca, Nev. — you know where that is, right? — excavation is underway on a $2.3 billion project to build a massive surface mine and chemical processing facility aimed at boosting America’s lithium production by 1,600 percent. Lithium, notes Mark Robison in the Reno Gazette Journal, is an essential mineral — it powers smartphones and electric vehicles, for example — but only 1 percent of it is now produced in the United States. There’s opposition to the facility, and that’s now being hashed out in court, but the project is moving forward anyway. The mine could be in production by 2026, and continue operations for 40 years.
DOWNLOAD OR LISTEN NOW: MORE FROM THE UPSTATE AMERICAN
IF YOU’RE A READER who wants to hear more of Rex Smith’s views, check www.wamc.org for his weekly on-air commentary aired by Northeast Public Radio. Here’s a link to the latest essay. And if your interest is specific to American media, you can download the podcast of The Media Project, the 30-minute nationally-syndicated discussion that Rex leads each week on current issues in journalism.
Print or not — that’s not the question
As someone who spent more than four decades working for newspapers, you might think the decline of print as a medium of communication would leave me a bit unhinged. Take note of this, for context, as reported by Columbia Journalism Review:
Wiener Zeitung — a newspaper in Vienna that is one of the world’s oldest — has ended its daily print run after more than 300 years in circulation, citing financial pressure. The paper’s final edition featured this headline: “320 years, 12 presidents, 10 emperors, 2 republics, 1 newspaper.” It plans to continue publishing online and via a monthly print edition.
I’m a bit nostalgic, yes, for the old days of newspapering. I started reporting as a teenaged intern, in a newsroom of clattering typewriters with “paste pots” on every reporter’s desk; I love the excitement in a newsroom during big news events, as well as the smell of newsprint and the roar of the press. But digital technology is in almost every way a superior way to present and consume news: It can be preserved for reading anytime (rather than being thrown out or used to wrap fish), it features links to original work, it can offer moving pictures and it can be updated and corrected as more reporting changes what we know of stories.
So don’t bemoan the loss of print newspapers. Save your sorrow for the demise not of ink on crushed trees, but of reporting. That’s the awful result of the digital revolution’s financial impact on legacy media. Iif you need a target, direct your rage at the hedge funds that responded to the change by buying and then gutting local newspapers, leaving huge debt burdens that can only be paid off by draining America of local journalism. If you don’t have a healthy local newspaper that’s producing good coverage for your smartphone and laptop, look around for some of the fine not-for-profit alternatives that are springing up, and support them with a tax-deductible donation.
As you’ll note from the “Newsclips” section above, I look at papers around the country each week, and draw from their websites to give you a smattering of interesting stories. I’m glad they’re still around, diminished as they may be, and I encourage you to support the journalists in your community by subscribing.
But here’s what’s key: It’s the reporting that matters, not the way it comes to you.
Thanks for taking the time to read The Upstate American, and for joining me in celebrating *our common ground in this great America. We’ll see you next week.