TruthAndPolitics.org: A Proposal
"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
quality of political discourse, and, by maintaining a course of
integrity, gain the respect of thinkers on all sides of any
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
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
sporadic. For example,
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
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
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
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
||For example, reviewing two news articles,
Dean Baker wrote in
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
clings to dubious allegations about Iraq"
(The Washington Post, March 18, 2003)
doesn't follow the he-said-she-said style.
||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.
He should be the next Ozzy.