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Colbert vs. Kyl and spread of 'misinformation'

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
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Avlon: Colbert vs. Kyl on truth
  • Sen. Jon Kyl incorrectly said 90% of Planned Parenthood's work is abortions
  • His office explained that it was "not intended to be a factual statement"
  • John Avlon: Some in politics think it's OK to spread falsehoods to rally support
  • He says, "Americans deserve better, and we should demand better"

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

New York (CNN) -- "Not intended to be a factual statement."

This was the sound of the curtain coming back on what passes for political debate too often these days.

The now-infamous statement from Sen. Jon Kyl's office was released after he said on the floor of the U.S. Senate that abortions represent "over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does."

It turns out that the actual number is 3%, a mere rounding error of 87%. But it was presented to the American people and enshrined in the Senate Record as a means of arguing that Planned Parenthood should be entirely defunded in the current budget.

This has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility and everything to do with the disproportionate influence of social conservative activists.

Their most compelling argument is that the American people don't support federal taxpayer money paying for abortions, which is true -- and why federal funding of abortion has been banned since 1976.

But the facts are inconvenient, and so they are ignored. Instead, talking points taken from talk radio are repeated until they take on a life of their own and eventually get the validation of a U.S. senator.

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The news wasn't that Kyl made a mistake; it was his staff essentially acknowledging that in the current hyper-partisan environment, facts are a secondary concern, even on the floor of the U.S. Senate, even when they are paraded as statistics. The important thing is to scare the hell out of people so that they remember your political point and pass it on.

Like the mirror image of some hippies of old, emotional truth is more important than literal truth. It creates a political tower of Babel.

In this absurd spin cycle, there's one dependable place to look for sanity: satire. And on cue came Stephen Colbert, who took Kyl's statement as a challenge and dialed it up to 11. Using the Twitter hashtag #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement, Colbert unleashed a steady stream of Jon Kyl mistruths with the requisite denial. Among my favorites:

• Jon Kyl developed his own line of hair care products just so he could test them on bunnies.

• Jon Kyl can unhinge his jaw like a python to swallow small rodents whole.

• Every Halloween Jon Kyl dresses up as a sexy Mitch Daniels.

• Jon Kyl sponsored S.410, which would ban happiness.

• Jon Kyl let a game-winning ground ball roll through his legs in Game 6 of the '86 World Series.

• Jon Kyl once ate a badger he hit with his car.

You get the idea. But the problem is much bigger than Jon Kyl. Colbert is going to have to get a bigger hashtag. Because we're heading to a strange place where Daniel Patrick Moynihan's truism "everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts" no longer applies.

Exhibit B this week: Donald Trump's re-enflaming of the thoroughly discredited birther conspiracy theory. When he repeats this falsehood in interviews, he is too often treated as a man with an unorthodox opinion, not someone repeating a lie on national television.

As a result, more people are duped and the country more divided, not on the many rational reasons to oppose President Obama's policy agenda but on paranoid fantasies cut out of whole cloth.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a man responsible for pushing the birther myth -- and a reported recent Trump adviser -- Joe Farah of the fringe website World Net Daily freely admitted to this week that his site publishes "some misinformation."

"Misinformation" is a fancy word for lying with an ideological agenda in mind. It has become more acceptable and more influential with the rise of partisan media. It preys on the gullible and the stupid and the ditto-head alike.

The cycle of incitement that afflicts our politics ensures that this dynamic bleeds into both sides of the aisle. For example, the liberal Campaign for America's Future recently declared that "Congressman Eric Cantor wants to eliminate Social Security," a flat-out "pants on fire" lie, as described by indispensable PolitiFact.

A little-noticed local example of this strangeness caught my eye this week, courtesy of the website ThinkProgress. It seems that Texas state Rep. Leo Berman put forward a bill to ban sharia law in the Lone Star State.

When he was asked why such a step was necessary, he cited the city of Dearborn, Michigan, six times in testimony: "It's being done in Dearborn, Michigan ... because of a large population of Middle Easterners. The judges in Dearborn are using and allowing to be used sharia law."

This would indeed be troubling (and unconstitutional) if true, but when Berman was pressed about the source of his facts, here's what he told J. Patrick Pepper of the Press and Guide in Dearborn: "I heard it on a radio station here on my way in to the Capitol one day. ... I don't know Dearborn, Michigan, but I heard it on the radio. Isn't that true?"

No, it's not, as Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly has been forced to make abundantly clear, stating that "these people know nothing of Dearborn, and they just seek to provoke and enflame their base for political gain."

But the misinformation percolating around the fringes of hyper-partisan media is creeping into state capitals and the U.S. Congress. Ignorance and incitement begin to blur, compounded by the civic laziness of speakers who don't care to fact-check.

"Not intended to be a factual statement" is an instant dark classic, a triumph of cynicism, capturing the essence of Michael Kinsley's definition of a gaffe in Washington: when a politician accidentally tells the truth.

No wonder "people are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke," as Will Rogers once said and Colbert increasingly embodies. But we can't keep depending on comedians to be the voices of sanity.

And don't be fooled. There are real costs to this careless courtship of the lowest common denominator. Without fact-based debates, politics can quickly give way to paranoia and hate. Our democracy gets degraded.

Americans deserve better, and we should demand better, especially from our elected representatives. Empowering ignorance for political gain is unacceptable.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.

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