When a public figure sues someone for libel, they must prove not only that what was published was wrong but that the person who wrote it had "actual malice" -- they either meant to lie or were so reckless that they might as well have meant to lie.
Last weekend, I noted a Twitter update making an accusation against a public official.
I have, for many years, criticized many types of pass-along e-mails and Facebook statuses -- they are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable. I've also urged the use of the Snopes.com Web site to check out any such information.
I went and looked up this accusation on Snopes and, sure enough, it was false -- not just distorted or out-of-date but completely and documentably false. The public official in question, whatever else he might or might not have done, was innocent of that specific charge.
I posted a Twitter reply to the accuser saying that the accusation was false and directing her to the Snopes page. I figured her original posting to be an honest mistake; people pass stuff like that along all the time without bothering to check it out.
But a few minutes later, when I returned to Twitter, a chill went down my spine. The woman had re-posted the original accusation, this time with a claim that it had been confirmed by Snopes.
The original posting might have been an honest mistake; the second one pretty much had to be a deliberate lie.
It's a good thing for people on either end of the political spectrum to be active and passionate. If you care about this country, you want to see the right people in any political office, and you have a right and responsibility to work towards that goal. Liberals, moderates, conservatives and those whose political leanings aren't easily classified disagree about how they see the world. They disagree about which problems are most important, and about the best way to respond to various problems -- but they are all patriots. Sure, there are bad apples, but I think most politically-active private citizens have the best interests of the country at heart. That's a good thing.
Political battles need to be fought based on facts, however, not lies. If you can't win an election based on the truth, if you have to resort to lies and name-calling and mud-slinging, it's time to take a second look at what you're fighting for.
I think many of us are angered by the case from Old Hickory where an individual candidate was trying to run a clean, positive campaign but discovered that his party, without consulting him, was mailing out literature attacking his opponent. The candidate asked the party to stop and party officials refused. That's what political discourse is becoming in this country. It's not about what I can do if I'm elected; it's about convincing you that my opponent is corrupt and dangerous. Pretty soon, the voters have seen so many attack ads that they're convinced everyone, in both parties, is corrupt and dangerous.
Negative campaigning is nothing new. A clever YouTube video that's been making the rounds takes actual quotes from the Founding Fathers -- Jefferson criticizing Adams and vice-versa -- and uses them as the basis for modern-style attack ads. But I think there's something truly different and disturbing in the tone of our political discourse today, and if we can't figure out how to change course it could result in grave consequences for our political future and for our chances of convincing qualified, capable people to toss their hats in the ring.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.