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October 11, 2008

Filtering facts critical in TMI age

It's more than three weeks until Election Day, and my internal hard drive is already just about maxed out.

In this Too-Much-Information Age, we have 24/7 access to news _ and opinion _ on every step (and misstep) the presidential candidates take, every questionable association they ever had, every exaggeration, every innuendo, every fact taken out of context.

I don't have to watch a talk show to find out what a candidate said and how the other side responded. I haven't actually seen the latest "attack" ads, but I know what they allege.

And with a female candidate now in the mix, there's a whole new stream of irrelevant details, from commentary on how she balances work and family to "news" analysis of her decision to wear glasses in an age of Lasik surgery.

I'm all for an informed populace, but in our culture, just seeking information is no longer enough. Being able to hone in on what really matters _ and having the good sense to turn off the news when enough is enough _ has become a critical skill.

I have a friend who is losing sleep because she is so anxious about the outcome of the election. She passionately supports one of the candidates, and she fears that if the other man wins, the future will be bleak. Hearing the endless analysis and the constant play-by-play _ he's up in the polls, now he's down, now they're neck in neck _ is not serving her well.

I know others who are so sick of all the political coverage that they're about to throw up their hands and not pay attention to any of it. But that, too, would be a mistake.

So, how do we find the happy medium between too much information and too little? When do appearances and small details matter, and how can we see past the distractions and focus on the issues? It is not easy. Gut feelings and little things resonate with us in a way that complex issues and big-picture promises can't.

Case in point: I confess, hearing Sarah Palin say "nucular" during the vice presidential debate aligned her with George W. Bush in my mind as much as hearing her downplay the man-made causes of climate change. I know that's not fair. It's a tiny, inconsequential detail, yet it influenced my perception in a way I can't control, just as Al Gore's impatient sighing and eye-rolling influenced debate viewers in 2000.

Some will argue that the presidential election is just a popularity contest, anyway, and how much does it really matter who wins? Whoever is elected will inherit a huge mess that can't be fixed overnight or even in four years. The Oval Office doesn't come equipped with a magic wand or a crystal ball, after all, so what's the fuss about?

This may be true to a point, but people forget how much power the president really holds. There are the official powers _ the power to appoint Cabinet members and nominate Supreme Court justices, call up the National Guard, authorize the use of nuclear weapons, issue executive orders regarding rules and regulations for federal agencies, and sign or veto congressional bills.

Then there are the intangible powers. There's the power of perception: What people and leaders around the world think of Americans and what we stand for has a lot to do with the person we choose to represent us at the highest level, especially now. There's also the power to inspire: While he doesn't have the authority to change or make policy, the president is in a position to effect change by inspiring lawmakers to work together to find innovative solutions to our problems.

There can be no doubt: The outcome of this election matters.

There are those who say the American public is too ignorant to make an educated decision, which is why we have the Electoral College to save us from ourselves. (There's the great irony: If it's a popularity contest, why doesn't the popular vote dictate the winner?)

Let's prove the pundits wrong. Refuse to listen to negative campaigning. Look past the spin; seek the facts. Don't be influenced by "opinion journalism." Find out for yourself where the candidates stand on the issues that are important to you, and vote accordingly.


Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at