How to Respond to Family Chain Mail

The following is my brother’s response to an email forwarded from my mom which like most chain mail was propagandized folderol. I hope his reply will be helpful to others who regularly receive discreditable email from family members, and serve as a reminder to all of us how not to form an opinion.

While Bill Bennett has some credentials, in the context of this email, he’s just a political pundit — and that makes this email just an opinion piece. There’s certainly nothing wrong with pundits or opinion pieces (it’s a free country after all), as long you know and understand exactly what it is that you’re reading.

Here’s two things to keep in mind (in my humble opinion):

  1. Punditry (and opinion) is VERY different from journalism (and credible news).

A credible news source should follow a strict code of ethics. You can look into the Journalism code of ethics, but it basically means the source holds things like objectivity, factual accuracy, and time for opposing viewpoints above all else.

Pundits don’t follow any code of ethics — and that’s fine, as long as when you read something like Bennett’s opening statement “they will kill him before they let him be president,” you understand you’re reading someone’s opinion, not necessarily something factually accurate and certainly not objective.

In summary, when Bennett says “Obama has committed many crimes,” the discerning reader will interpret this as “Bill Bennett is a right-wing pundit that thinks Obama is a criminal,” rather than “Obama is a criminal.” This is a very important distinction, because remember, Bennett isn’t offering fact-based evidence, backed with citations from credible sources, to support his claims. So if you interpret Bennett’s words as anything more than his own personal musings, you run the risk of being woefully uninformed.

To that end, I’m reminded of a great quote from Mark Twain — Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.

2. Punditry teaches people to not think for themselves.

In the US, we like having our ideas and opinions handed to us neatly boxed with a bow on top. Why? Because it’s far easier than the alternative, which is establishing them ourselves. That is to say, it’s much easier to have Sean Hannity tell you how to think, rather than try and think for yourself.

I’m not saying this is the case with you Mom, but I’m pointing out that establishing one’s own educated ideas and opinions requires a lot of work. You first have to research (hopefully from an objective source) the particular issue to get a basic understanding. Then you have to look into the relevant facts, consider historical context, listen to opposing viewpoints, and weigh expert opinion. After all that, hopefully you can arrive at a well-informed conclusion, but even then, new information may come available that forces you to reconsider. Again I’m reminded of a great quote, this one from John Maynard Keynes — When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

Fortunately for us, we have the internet — mankind’s greatest and largest source of information, and it’s available to everyone! Sure maybe less than 1% of information on the internet meets the criteria above (i.e. journalism code of ethics and standards), but it’s still far more than someone even couple decades ago had available. This makes it far easier for someone today to try and think for themselves.

In a functioning democracy, elected officials should follow the will of the people. But what happens if the will of the people is guided by pundits who lack objectivity and conveniently avoid fact and evidence? That’s why, in my humble opinion, punditry is a cancer on society when interpreted by the general public as truth.

Six different times Bill Bennett mentions “the media” in the emailer — like it’s some dark force moving behind the scenes in the shadows. What exactly is he referring to? The mainstream media — whatever the “mainstream media” even means? Cable news media? Talk radio media? Maybe it’s CNN or Nightline? Or maybe it’s really just any media outlet that offers a viewpoint different from his. I certainly hope he isn’t referring to the media outlets that — god forbid — actually provides factually accurate information. I’m sure Bill wouldn’t want some silly thing like fact-based evidence getting in his way.

In closing, I just hope that when you read something like this, you don’t treat it like fact, because it’s not. It’s not anything that even remotely resembles fact.

This email has since been debunked by snopes.com to not have been written by Bill Bennett at all. So an appropriate third point would be Always verify your sources.