22 September 2008


Perhaps you have read the forwarded email about the statue of an American soldier in Iraq who is kneeling before an empty pair of boots. At the point where the article slams the news media, I began having suspicions about its authenticity.

I fully understand that we all want to feel good about our country and its policies, as we also want to think that there are incidences (indeed, there are) where other people appreciate the largesse and good intentions of the U.S. But, in this case, the truth is a bit less immaculate.

Snopes.com (http://www.snopes.com/photos/military/kalat.asp) has a page exposing the statue-project email.

Certainly, it is a positive story about American soldiers honoring their fallen comrades. That's good. But someone embellished the truth to create a narrative in which the Iraqi national took the initiative to commemorate U.S. involvement in his country. Evidently, this is not true. Not true, also, according to the news clips accompanying the Snopes article, was that the project was the Iraqi sculptor's idea. Instead, the project was initiated by American soldiers and the Iraqi was paid well for his work.

The statue narrative is positive, but it is written with an ideological slant. First, it criticizes the news media, when actually the statue story was fairly widely disseminated. The unspoken bias here is that anonymously written, forwarded emails are more truthful than the news media and the latter are operating to obscure the truth. Second, it presents a false story with the subtext of Iraqis wanting the U.S. military there in Iraq . I'm sure some do; the sculptor is not one of them.

Why, you might ask, should I (or you) care about the veracity of a story about beneficence on anyone's part? On the one hand, as my newspaperman father, Larry Stone, used to say--"Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?" But, on the other hand, with the speed and ubiquity of communication technology, anyone can widely diffuse DISinformation. My concern is that Americans now do not know who or what to believe, leaving us vulnerable to demagoguery. This is a clear danger to the functioning of democratic society.

You can imagine that someone, possibly associated with the U.S. military, who had firsthand information about the statue, saw an opportunity to promote American involvement in Iraq (and denigrate the news media). This is conjecture on my part. What is surer is that Americans need a crash course in media literacy.

At a time when so many people are grasping for positive news and forming a portion of their ideological beliefs from dubious Internet messages, then anonymously written, forwarded emails are probably not the place to look--at least for truthful information. Otherwise, we are heading toward a society partly ruled by unaccountable cyber-suasion. Good stories are good; the truth is even better.

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