Syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Leonard Pitts Jr., speaking at the University of Kentucky Tuesday night, lamented "the stupidification of the United States" and said Americans are "swallowing down this intellectual junk food and then wondering why we feel so sick."
Pitts, in delivering UK's 34th annual Joe Creason Lecture, called out individuals including conservative commentators Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity and political figures such as Sarah Palin and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann for what he described as "this thing of lying by committee, of trying to turn lies into truth by ... sheer repetition."
In response to a question from the audience, Pitts said the trend to which he was referring was an intentional effort for the purpose of "the amassing of political power."
"Frightened people are people that can be manipulated," he said. "It's about the manipulation of the American electorate."
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Pitts, who joined The Miami Herald and has been writing syndicated columns since 1994, said the Internet has been "a godsend" for people who want to manipulate public opinion with false information.
"It may ultimately have its greatest impact as a spreader of lies," he said of the Internet, because it offers such people anonymity and reach.
Pitts mentioned as examples the false belief that many Americans have that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and that he is a Muslim. (Although Pitts questioned why the latter would matter, if it were true.)
He called on the news media to expand its fact-checking function beyond political campaigns and to begin to "ferret out the names and motives of people who spread lies" via the Internet, then treat them as front-page news.
And he drew a round of applause when he said critical thinking should be a required course for high school or college students.
Pitts, who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004 and was a finalist in 1992, urged those in attendance to "own what you know" by choosing sources of information that challenge their beliefs rather than always supporting them and to "enter into debate understanding that it is more important to find the truth than to win your argument."
"Facts are not red and facts are not blue," he said. "Facts are facts."
John S. Carroll, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and the Herald-Leader who attended the lecture, said he found Pitts "very wise and thoughtful and interesting."
"I agreed with every word he said," Carroll said. "The rhetoric of the public discussion these days is so damaging to the truth. Everyone has their own set of facts."
Pitts' columns are regularly printed on the Herald-Leader's editorial pages.