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Get it Right: Too Much Information?

President Obama delivered an empowering commencement speech to graduating Hampton University students on May 1. With the sagacity of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, he administered the cliche “with great power comes great responsibility” pump-up prose and paid some lip service to America’s preeminence, the American “insistence on pursuing a dream” and the glory of democracy. The irony of Obama delivering a speech touting the glory of a free society becomes clear when one examines his words a little more carefully. The president managed to weave the following into his commencement address:

Meanwhile, you’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t rank all that high on the truth meter. With iPods and iPads, Xboxes and PlayStations, information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment. All of this is not only putting new pressures on you; it is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy.

I wonder if Stanford students feel unduly pressured by the deluge of media information. Are we, as the president implies, diverted and distracted by the onslaught of news sources? Are we incapable of isolating crucial arguments when bombarded by 24/7 media? Obama continued his claim:

With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s not. Let’s face it, even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I’ve had some experience with that myself.

Statements like these bring to mind a White House blog (more irony?) post in August of 2009, which requested that the public report “disinformation” about health insurance reform to the government. The blog post reads, “These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of [the disinformation] here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance that seems fishy, send it to [email protected]

The message is clear: information presented on blogs, cable and talk radio is problematic and “diverting,” unless of course it is analyzed by the Obama administration, stripped of critical content and stamped with presidential approval. It has been decreed that we ought not question the ineffable wisdom of the White House. In fact, we must report our fellow citizens when they dare to contradict “the truth” disseminated by the president. Remember, students, challenging authority is only permitted during Republican presidencies.

I argue that there are few things more central to democracy than different voices clamoring for our attention. The forums may be blogs, cable and talk radio, but doesn’t this allow for a greater number of viewpoints to be heard? The freedom of the press and the availability of varied and conflicting perspectives is crucial to keeping debate alive and providing some kind of balance to political discourse. Certainly false information surfaces from time to time, but the perils of an occasional inaccuracy pale in comparison to the prospect of a state-controlled media.

Obama’s comments seem out of place in a nation that condemns China and Iran for censoring free information transfer. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested earlier this year that China must answer for its behavior with Google: “We look to the Chinese government for an explanation.”

During the summer of 2009, the U.S. State Department asked Twitter to delay a network upgrade to allow Iranian protesters to continue using the service to communicate freely.

And yet our president claims that these resources are not tools of empowerment, but forms of entertainment. Which is why I am skeptical of his closing remarks to the graduates of Hampton: “And it now falls to you, the Class of 2010, to write the next chapter in America’s story…”

The Class of 2010 may write the story, but surely Obama will not approve unless it is first fact-checked by the administration and published on a government approved website.

Too many voices clamoring for your attention? Just pay attention to this one: [email protected]

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