by Larry Magid
As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” Yet in this election campaign and in some business communications, I’m seeing utter disregard for the truth.
As the numerous fact checking organizations like FactCheck.org have shown, both the Romney and Obama camps have been guilty of exaggerations and, in some cases, misstatements of facts. I was annoyed when a pro-Obama political action committee ran an ad that falsely implied that a layoff at a Bain Capital owned business meant that Romney was responsible for a woman’s death. But I’ve never seen anything like the Romney TV commercial and subsequent radio commercial that claims that Chrysler is outsourcing Jeep manufacturing jobs to China. The false claim was outrageous enough to prompt the CEO of Chrysler to send an email to all his employees lest they think they were in danger of losing their jobs. GM weighed in calling it “campaign politics at its cynical worst.” Even in its endorsement of Romney, the conservative Detroit News pointed out that it was “grateful for the extraordinary contribution President Obama made to Michigan in leading the rescue of General Motors and Chrysler.”
But deception isn’t just limited to politics. I’m finding it in business too. A few years ago I got letter from a major bank offering me a free cash advance. There was nothing in the letter about a cash advance fee so I took the loan, even though I didn’t really need the money. About a month later I saw a 3% cash advance fee on my statement and when I called to question it, I was told that the fee was disclosed in agreement I signed when I opened the account — about 10 years earlier. Technically, the company may have been right, but it was morally bankrupt and deceptive. I paid off the loan and immediately closed my account, but I’m sure that didn’t upset anyone at the bank even though I used that card for tens of thousand of dollars of travel a year.
I think it was Mark Twain who said “figures don’t lie but liars do figure.” I’m co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization and I pay a lot of attention to surveys about Internet safety. As I wrote on CNET news, McAfee, a couple of years ago, put out a press pitch claiming “shocking findings of teen’s online behavior,” but the actual survey results were more reassuring than shocking. The press pitch completely misrepresented the study’s findings.
Earlier this week I got a pitch from another company claiming “With kids spending more time on Facebook, there is more potential for them to encounter cyberbullying, predators, and a host of other security threats,” yet when I read through the report and examined the questions they asked, what I saw was extremely shoddy research — far below what I demanded of my undergraduates when I taught survey research at the University of Massachusetts (where I earned a doctorate in education with a specialty in educational research). There were no out and out lies in the survey report, but plenty of inferences that weren’t justified by the actual data. For example, they found that kids who stay online after midnight are more likely to take certain risks, but even if that correlation is correct, it doesn’t prove causation. They didn’t even look at other factors like whether kids who stay up very late at night might have negligent parents or might be risk takers in other aspects of their lives.
Time for truth
It’s time for everyone to insist on honesty in public whether it’s from our elected officials, political candidates, businesses, interest groups or non-profits. Whether we’re electing a president or buying a product, we want to be doing business with someone with integrity. I understand spinning and putting your best foot forward and I even understand the temptation to demean your opponent or competitor, but I just don’t understand how anyone can get away with lying.