A political commentator observed after the first presidential debate that we have entered the "post-truth era" of politics in America, where facts are less important than narratives.
Time Magazine featured a major story called "The Fact Wars," which concludes that presidential candidates are battling over alternate universes, charging each other with lying, while avoiding their own accountability for sticking to the facts. Time says political fact-checking fills much of the nightly news and print news columns. But that doesn't stop the distortions from continuing.
Much of the criticism of President Barack Obama's debate performance centered on his failure to call out misleading statements by his GOP challenger Mitt Romney. On the other hand, Romney was lauded for directly confronting Obama during the debate, often with claims that have already been discredited.
Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, lamented in her blog what she called "the decline of facts."
"Researchers have theorized that people tend to seek out validation of their existing beliefs rather than neutrally research some objective truth," Cripps wrote.
The tsunami of information rushing through the Internet overwhelms the instinct to slow down and scrutinize what is true and what is BS. "Ensconced in our media bubbles," Cripps said, "we are used to having our beliefs validated for us and often aren't subjected to serious critiques of what we think."
Telling falsehoods didn't just start in this election. Time notes that in 1796 supporters of John Adams spread tales of Thomas Jefferson's alleged atheism and loyalty to France, while Jefferson's aides concocted stories about Adams' monarchist sympathies. In fact, the campaigns descended a lot lower than that.
Cripps observes, "The decline of facts is by no means limited to politics. University presidents report that plagiarism on the part of students is on the rise. So, too, is fraudulent scientific research." She could have added bogus advertising claims, falsified media interviews and the myriad of Ponzi schemes that have fleeced retirees, investors and average citizens of billions of dollars.
Lying has made people overall more cynical, Cripps argues. "The decline of awareness about facts and the apparent emergence of multiple alternate realities should concern us all."
As a public relations professional, Cripps says, "We should be sure to root the stories we tell about clients in fact. I believe the truth will always prove most persuasive, even in our cynical, polarized age."
Cripps recalls comedian Stephen Colbert's campaign against "truthiness." "Truthiness is tearing apart our country," said the satirical Colbert. "It used to be everyone was entitled to their own opinion, not their own facts. But that's not the case any more. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything."
Speaking then about President George W. Bush, Colbert said, "People love the President because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't exist."
The growing concern in 2012 is that facts are inconvenient to the story lines that attract the most support — in the form of campaign contributions and votes.
Or, as political operatives might say in private, "It doesn't matter whether it's true. It only matters whether enough people believe it's true."