TruthAndPolitics.org: A Proposal

Introduction

"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." James Madison

To engage in informed political discourse, people need access to information. Americans have more freedom of access to information than ever before. For example, proposals to commit American troops abroad are now far more transparent and met with greater debate than during the height of the Cold War. However, educating oneself about "the issues" can be labor intensive, with much time spent locating resources rather than learning from them. It might take an hour or more to sharpen a letter to the editor of a newspaper by citing facts and figures to buttress a claim. These educational issues are often addressed only minimally by advocacy groups, which often focus on direct-mail campaigns to raise funds instead of attending to informing their membership.

TruthAndPolitics.org is envisioned as a clearinghouse for knowledge, an attempt to achieve economies of scale in the dissemination and organization of information, both current and historical, relevant to politics and public policy. The project’s primary long-term goal is to help individuals access the current sphere of knowledge more efficiently and avoid needless duplication of effort. Furthermore, describing the current and past state of the world will be emphasized over normative statements of how the world should be.

A word about bias

Of course, the task of describing the world would be unmanageable without a filter, and the filter adapted here is that of modern, left-of-center political liberalism informed by Enlightenment values. Interested individuals will then be able to spend more time learning about the issues and making their own educated judgments. It is hoped that by emphasizing description and keeping any bias open and honest, TruthAndPolitics.org will help improve the quality of political discourse, and, by maintaining a course of integrity, gain the respect of thinkers on all sides of any particular debate.

Thus, TruthAndPolitics.org is an "index to political knowledge." I created it because of my desire to improve the quality of political debate in the United States. More specifically, I want to increase the circulation of informed liberal viewpoints. I believe "the Left" and the liberal community would benefit if more energy were spent on the twin goals of presenting the merits of liberal/left viewpoints and organizing people to further liberal political ends and less energy on emotional, partisan appeals.

Flaws in the presentation of information

Structure

While the "latest news" receives prominent play in both the broadcast and print media, references to older but relevant political and historical events and knowledge are sparse. Attempts to track changes in what is known about particular issues over time are sporadic. For example, "From Old Files, a New Story of U.S. Role in Angolan War" (Howard French, The New York Times, March 31, 2002) details recent historical research demonstrating that the US intervention in the Angolan civil war predated Cuban involvement there, contrary to US claims at the time. While the article in itself is important, well-written, and useful to anyone interested in the history of US interventions in the Third World, a reader interested in a fuller summary of the Angolan conflict and America’s role there would have to perform her own search.

A related point is that basic background facts are omitted. For example, in discussions of Federal spending and taxation, breakdowns of Federal expenditures and revenue sources for the current and previous fiscal year are usually omitted. While providing such an accounting may be somewhat technical and even at certain points controversial (such as how to determine the fractions of Federal debt arising from past military versus civilian spending), reasonable figures can be found in Government and public policy publications, yet are not immediately available in conjunction with related news items.

Aside from these issues of depth, there is a lack of integration of structure in the body of easily accessible knowledge. Most prominent is a lack of compilations of source material. This deficit is the primary cause of the inefficiency alluded to above---a lack of economy of scale in the presentation of information---as each individual researching a particular topic must repeat the steps already performed by others. One may object that any editorial process of compilation must entail a method of selection, and that there is no "best" way to select sources (even apart from concerns about the political bias of the editors). The position taken here is that reasonable compromises can be made, and the cost of making particular choices of material is outweighed by the benefit of making informed access to the body of knowledge more efficient.

Integrating sources in this manner will allow juxtaposition of conflicting viewpoints and interpretations. This will allow the reader of TruthAndPolitics.org convenient access to both sides of a debate. Furthermore, centralizing summaries and links to opposing viewpoints will give rise to a "Socratic dialogue," hopefully speeding convergence to the truth, or at least leading to stronger and more persuasive claims. Currently, such debates often consist of partisan exchanges, with spectators unsure of the extent and validity of claims put forth. For example, President Bush’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security claimed that the Social Security trust fund would start to run into trouble when payouts exceeded revenues. Liberal backers of the fund countered that this claim was specious, and that Treasury bonds held by the fund constitute real assets. A comparison of the various viewpoints in this debate would prove useful.

Finally, information sources should be prioritized. At present the default prioritization is that provided by time: new sources receive much attention, whereas older ones are forgotten. This overemphasis on timeliness and originality reflects the human creative urge. Priority should instead be based on a measure of utility and relevance of the information contained in a source. Again, while it may be objected that there is no universal method for doing so, reasonable compromises can be reached. An example of a neglected but important source is Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon Whitehouse. Although the first edition appeared in 1983, it is still the richest source of material about Henry Kissinger’s questionable role in US foreign policy available today.

Substance

The substance of the presentation of issues is often skewed in a way which makes its presentation less efficient. First, there is an excess reliance on normative statements instead of descriptive claims. While normative claims help give structure to collections of politically relevant facts, readers need much less instruction or persuasion than they currently receive in the popular media. For example, various pieces opined on the topic of George W. Bush’s proposals for tax reductions. While these writings no doubt included references to the factual basis of the debate, every such piece had to spend some column space to convey the author’s normative views on the debate, while the actual number and variety of such viewpoints is dwarfed by the extent of the details of the role of Federal taxation and expenditure in our modern economy.

News reports outside the opinion pages attempt to cover the descriptive questions---what is the state of the world?---but often prove insufficient, because much of their reportage is spent serving as a conduit for the viewpoints of powerful, partisan interests (so-called "he-said-she-said" journalism).<1> This is related to another weakness in the substance of reports in the popular press---a narrowing of the framework of debate. While groups outside the government and the political system (such as non-governmental organizations) are becoming increasingly important in certain sectors of society, most press reports still rely heavily on statements of high-level political sources, even when there is reliable, validated information otherwise available. For example, the press will often report the actions and claims of Democratic and Republican Federal legislators in order to describe the budget process and make too little use of reports of congressional and executive agencies which are easier to validate and perhaps less biased.

Because political debates entail an element of struggle, they are marked by ad hominem argument. While claims about the reliability and veracity of individuals and organizations might be necessary in the absence of independently verifiable sources of data, this mode of presentation of the terms of debate is invoked too frequently.

Finally, journalism puts a great emphasis on style and originality of presentation. While some effort at a fresh presentation is reasonable, the question arises whether the purpose of a particular article or report is to educate or to entertain the news consumer. A clear example of this is the writings of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.<2>

Footnotes

<1> For example, reviewing two news articles, Dean Baker wrote in "Economics Reporting Review: June 8 - June 14, 2002,"
These articles report on the Senate's approval of a bill that would increase the nation's borrowing limit. Both articles report partisan claims that the other party is to blame for increased indebtedness. Neither article provides readers with information that would allow them to assess these claims.
In contrast, the reporting by Pincus and Milbank in "Bush clings to dubious allegations about Iraq" (The Washington Post, March 18, 2003) doesn't follow the he-said-she-said style.
<2> Dowd's Times' column of May 5, 2002, "Boxers, Briefs, Mochas", discussed the possibility of Bill Clinton hosting a daytime talk show and began:
Bill should not be the next Oprah.
That's silly.
He should be the next Ozzy.