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Research, confirm, then speak

Johnson City Press • Mar 8, 2020 at 7:15 AM

Words matter. Using them responsibly and accurately, especially in public forums, matters most. Once something is uttered, it takes on a life of its own. No matter how vehemently it’s rebutted, corrected or retracted, it can be shared, tweeted, repeated and finally engrained in truth in many minds.

Social media has made haphazard assertion especially dangerous, given how easy it is to spread with a click on a computer or smartphone. We carry some of the mightiest weapons ever known to humankind in our pockets, and they don’t even need a firing pin.

All of us must take greater care to scrutinize what we hear and read before we repeat it. That’s especially true for those we entrust with governance.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, failed miserably in that regard Feb. 24 when she misrepresented Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine’s record in health care administration — both with a former employer involved in a fraud case and at Ballad.

Her statements were made on the floor of the state House during discussion about Levine’s appointment to Tennessee’s charter schools commission. The statements were part of that day’s record in the Legislature. The comments were recorded, posted to social media and shared virally — with Ballad’s detractors giving her pats on the back.

Johnson should know better, as should all lawmakers, than to insert unvetted information into a debate. It’s especially problematic in an official forum, where it can easily be interpreted as truth. She failed to do the necessary diligence we expect from our elected officials. Doing simple research with reliable sourcing could have avoided her misstep.

In an interview Monday with Press Staff Writer David Floyd, Johnson acknowledged that she had misstated Levine’s position with his former employer and had corrected a related Facebook post. She stopped short of correcting other elements of her speech, calling them a disagreement about how she presented the details.

That’s not enough. Such incendiary remarks, especially when they hint at wrongdoing, must be retracted in the same fashion and forum in which they were unleashed. Johnson owes Levine a public apology on the House floor. We doubt he’s holding his breath.

Johnson is not the first legislator to perpetuate falsehoods in the state House.

State Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, infamously cited a parody article from The Onion, a satire publication and website, during a 2018 debate about college hazing. Even worse, Van Huss misquoted the parody.

Tennessee deserves better than inserting unvetted and bogus content into public policy discourse. In their zeal to win an argument, lawmakers may take shortcuts without confirming details that could unduly influence decisions.

The flip-side result, though, is that they often wind up discrediting themselves and undermining their own positions on the issues at hand.

Johnson allowed her opposition to charter schools and the fervor of Ballad’s detractors to cloud her judgment. Arguing on merit would serve her better.

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