Students are taught that the purpose of the media is to inform the people on matters of importance so that they are able to make informed decisions. On that score the Statesman recently failed on a monumental scale.
In the Jan. 7 Idaho Statesman, editorial page editor Robert Ehlert wrote that in matters pertaining to a constitutional debate, people “can’t cherry-pick through the articles, sections, and amendments ...” In the next paragraph he argued that the U.S. government had the constitutional power to be “in charge of our resources.” That line is followed by a citation of Article I, Section 8: “… To make rules for the government and regulation of the land …” That is the sum of his argument that the Constitution grants to government the power to regulate, I guess, land to be administered by the Bureau of Land Management as part of the Department of the Interior. He wrote a falsehood.
On that day I had all of my high school government students read Ehlert’s column. Then I had them read Clauses 12, 13, and 14 of Article I, Section 3. I asked them not to talk to one another as they read and thought about what they read. I told those who did not notice that the constitutional citation of words by Ehlert were those of Clause 14. I asked them whether those words were correctly used by Ehlert. The answers were not complimentary toward his column. Some were stunned into silence. Others voiced consternation. Many had fun.
Clause 12 empowers Congress “To raise and support Armies…” and Clause 13 empowers Congress “To provide and maintain a Navy.” Clause 14 reads in its entirety, “To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.” Students 16 to 18 years of age understood the painfully obvious phrasing of Clause 14 to mean that Congress had the power to make rules for an army (land forces) and navy (naval forces). They easily reasoned that Ehlert’s cited words had absolutely nothing to do with regulation of physical land or resources. None of the students noticed the clear misrepresentation of this column until they looked at the context of the relevant full clauses in the Constitution.
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Consider that he first wrote that it is wrong to “cherry-pick” parts of the Constitution in order “to take matters into their own hands.” I wish to add that it is wrong to “cherry-pick” parts of the Constitution to propagate a falsehood. That, however, is exactly what he did. Why did Ehlert write something so out of context, so wrong and so misleading to readers of the paper?
I have long concluded that there are two reasons for communicating a falsehood. First, one could relate a falsehood because one is ill-informed. A strong desire to make an argument could motivate one to not perform due diligence in research, for example. Quickly finding a good phrase might mean that the context of the phrase is misapplied. This could be purposeful or accidental. A second explanation is that one fully knows that one was propagating a falsehood but hopes to get away with it. Either possibility is inexcusable. I am unable to think of a third explanation.
In my classes I have often admonished students not to remain ignorant or to argue for a point by using wrongful control of language so as to bolster one’s position. Now I might just shorten that to, “Don’t be an Ehlert.”
Greg J. Sandmeyer is a high school government teacher at Timberline High School.