Did I ever tell you about my late Uncle Vernon and the time his slanderous lies about a respected business got unceremoniously debunked?
In the mid-70s Uncle Vernon hired a Nashville company to apply vinyl siding to his home. When he was completely disgusted with the finished product, he tried and tried to get satisfaction from the company.
Failing that, he turned to the consumer-defender “action news” segment of a high-rated local TV show for help. After a painstaking investigation, the ombudsman reluctantly informed him that his claims proved to be baseless and unreasonable.
Interestingly, the vinyl siding company was the SPONSOR of the “action news” segment!
This “fox guarding the hen house” incident springs to mind because I am alarmed by the frequency of the word “debunked” popping up in news reports and editorials.
“Debunked” has become ubiquitous in 21st-century society. “Ham on rye, hold the debunked.” “I identify as debunked.” “Next yoga position: the debunked dog.”
Our reliance on the word “debunked” owes much to our sheep-like dependence on self-appointed “fact-checkers.” (“You can trust me with your 5-year-old daughter. I’m a fact-checker! Now, do you have a peg to hang my raincoat on?”)
Journalism used to require a modicum of digging and elbow grease: wear out some shoe leather, interrogate multiple sources, search through documents, scrutinize alibis, wear a hidden microphone. Now it’s more a question of “Were you corrupt or incompetent in your actions?” “Of course not!” “Good enough for me. There’s ANOTHER myth debunked!”
Most members of the Fourth Estate wouldn’t know investigative journalism if it bit them on … well, you know. (“Ouch! Something bit me. Must be bedbugs from that motel chain we thoroughly vetted.”)
Media gatekeepers and “talking heads” are quick to rely on unnamed “experts in the field,” but often the only advantage of being in the field is the convenience of snatching up cow patties!
Through a combination of laziness, tight budgets, follow-the-leader syndrome and bias, a cry of “Debunked!” has become a reflex action. A PROPHETIC reflex action, in some cases. (“I understand the CEO wore a bow tie to work this morning.” “That’s a lie! That was debunked SIX MONTHS AGO!”)
Granted, if you don’t have the right connections, it’s an uphill battle to get a designation of “debunked.” (“True, our reporters had a sit-down interview with the senator’s wife yesterday afternoon – but the senator’s claims that he did not murder her last month are still in dispute by respected authorities.”)
Citizens continue having to navigate a minefield of urban legends, health hoaxes and smokescreens, so there will always be a legitimate need for legitimate debunkers; but currently the word is so overused as to be meaningless. In any given instance, does “debunked” mean “thoroughly investigated and demonstrably proven false” or does it mean “Buzz off! I’m George Freakin’ Stephanopoulos”?
I guess my best advice is to greet the phrase “debunked” with a grain of salt. Or maybe a big handful of salt.
(“The connection between sodium and blood pressure has been debunked! So says Stu the backup night watchman at the Acme Man We’ve Got A Serious Oversupply of Salt to Dispose of Corporation warehouse.”)
Rest in peace, Uncle Vernon. I hope you’re getting to enjoy decent vinyl siding in heaven.
(“News flash! Recent revelations from anonymous part-time agnostic have debunked the possibility of vinyl siding in heaven!”)