Politics in America: Just the Facts

With the presidential election looming, and our challenges more complex and global than ever, the state of public discourse in America is in crisis. Where there should be clear choices, anger and antipathy prevail. Partisan considerations trump common sense and cooperation. Compromise is a dirty word. Clear discussions of policy alternatives are buried beneath an avalanche of political positioning and negative ads. Information is overwhelmed by accusation.

We can do better than this.

What the public needs and should demand is serious, fact-driven discussion about real-world problems. Yet real facts are hard to come by in our political discourse. Some candidates and pundits actually disparage the facts. What’s going on? The causes and culprits are all around us.

Too many elected and aspiring leaders feed a vicious circle of assertion and accusation as they frame policy debates as black-and-white choices, simple problems with simple solutions. The media create a peculiar echo chamber; partisan shout fests too often trump the role of consistent fact provider. Interest groups pile on, heaving money, producing more attack ads, and making more claims than the public can ever hope to digest.

Believing that people want an alternative to this depressing dynamic, I started Face the Facts USA with philanthropist Ed Scott. We were determined to find a way to present fundamental facts creatively and memorably but without spin or bias. We wanted the facts to be accompanied by context and informed discussion.

Based at George Washington University, where I head the School of Media and Public Affairs, the project is powered by a tiny staff and a dedicated group of students, (It also has a bipartisan advisory group that counts Bill Delahunt ’63 and Jim Douglas ’72 among its members.) We release a fact a day in subject areas that relate to the economy, national security, education, and other issues.

The experiment is meeting with great success. Diverse media organizations from McClatchy-Tribune, Huffington Post, and Newsmax, to PBS, Journal-Register, and Voxxi are now distributing the facts. Their enthusiasm suggests these relationships are born of something more than convenience. There is a genuine hunger and appreciation for what we are doing—facing the facts every day.

I have been in journalism since my days at Middlebury. From a small radio station in Springfield, Vermont, to the Voice of America, the Associated Press and CNN, I have had the great privilege to travel the world, cover historic events, meet amazing people, and tell stories, hoping always to inform along the way. But I am deeply worried by the political and media noise machines around us. In too many places, we are polarized and paralyzed.

There is no easy fix to the depressing reality of America’s sound-bite culture and political gridlock. But the status quo is unacceptable. Facts matter. They are where we should start. And as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

It is my hope that this project, driven largely by young people who have the most to gain—or lose—can contribute to our national discourse.

Yes, we can do better. We have to.

Frank Sesno ’77 is Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. He served as CNN White House Correspondent, anchor and Washington Bureau Chief. He graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in American History and served as a trustee of the College from 1994-2004. Sign up for your fact a day at www.facethefactsusa.org.

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