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Alternate Realities, One America

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. '77 reflects on the "spin" of our nation.

Illustration by Emily Cavalcanti.
Illustration by Emily Cavalcanti.

I don’t know where to begin.

Maybe with the nice lady from the church group who assured me one day over lunch that at present rates of birth and immigration, Muslims will “take over” this country within a generation.

Or maybe with the reader who insisted that a story I had recounted in my newspaper column — how a black soldier named Henry Johnson singlehandedly fought off a platoon of Germans in World War I — did not happen.

Or maybe with a poll CNN released in August, indicating that fully a quarter of the American people still do not believe President Obama was born in the United States.

Perhaps it is enough to begin with the observation Buffalo Springfield made as the ’60s were curdling into something that bore no resemblance to Camelot: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Should it be necessary to say:

There is no Muslim takeover; estimates the number of Muslims in this country would have to double every 19 months for 20 years for Muslims to become a majority of the American electorate;

Henry Johnson’s heroism is real; it is recounted in history books and in contemporaneous newspaper and magazine stories;

And Barack Obama was born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961, according to his birth certificate, the governor of Hawaii and birth announcements that appeared in Honolulu newspapers at the time.

Also, for the record, no “death panel” is menacing your Nana. Those are all incontrovertible facts. I wish that mattered. 

Once upon a time and not so long ago, he or she who had the most compelling facts won the debate. But that was before news media fractured, three major television networks and a morning paper splintering into a 24/7 megaplex of cable stations and Web sites willing and eager to spin the news according to the views of their viewers. It was before e-mail gave each of us access to the rest of us, before blogs made each of us a news organization in his or her own right, but without all those pesky ethical constraints by which news organizations have traditionally been bound. It was before something hard and nasty crept into the nation’s political dialogue, before boundaries of propriety fell before demands of expediency, before scoring political points at all costs superseded the simple imperative to determine and do whatever was in the nation’s best interest.

For 34 years, I’ve made my living in “old” media, so I might reasonably be suspected of a little bias here. It is, after all, my industry that’s circling the drain.

But the most compelling danger is not the one faced by old media. It is, rather, the one faced by the country. A nation where each political faction has its own “facts” and truth is optional, a nation where there is no commonly accepted pool of information from which to draw conclusions or build arguments, is a nation where reasoning and intelligent debate become increasingly impossible. In other words, it’s our nation.

Recently, I had an e-mail exchange with a woman who insisted it was conservatives who fought to pass the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s. This is, of course, an outlandish canard. Conservative Southern Democrats were the one great roadblock to passage of those laws. But when I tried to explain this verifiable and wholly unquestionable fact, the woman grew irate and shut off our communication.

It occurred to me that she and I live alternate realities we both call America. In mine, reputable newspapers and books by expert authors are valid sources of fact. In hers, no fact is valid unless it comports with what you already believe. In hers, as a result, you can speak the absolutely ridiculous with complete and righteous conviction. I thought about e-mailing her back, but I knew it was no use.

I was depressed the rest of the day.


Leonard Pitts Jr. (B.A., English, ’77) is an American commentator, journalist and best-selling author. He writes a nationally syndicated column for the Miami Herald and won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Pitts is the author of the novel, Before I Forget (Agate Bolden, 2009) and a collection of his columns, Forward From This Moment (Agate Bolden), was released in 2009. Photo by Sarah J. Glover.


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2010/Winter 2011 issue