Fact Denial and the Record Under Threat

December 21st, 2016


George Despres, CRM
Program Director for University Records Management, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

As if we don’t have enough challenges, controlling information today. Part of our culture, at least here in the U.S., has embraced the acceptance of non-truths and the repudiation of facts in the record. It has also embraced the pseudo-record and fake news. Most of us, at least in this profession, know that we need to question all sources of information. There are also healthy debates around interpretation of evidence, and this is a good thing. But when the dominant conversation becomes an impossible stalemate based on spin, then the output value of information is neutralized. If we can’t ascertain some facts in consensus, then the record is mute. While those in our profession should be equipped to identify and segregate responsible journalism and authentic records, we live in a bigger world.

This world is convoluted by noise from bogus, malicious, and third-rate sources. Cranks with nothing better to do (or looking for a buck) post and masquerade screeds based on very little information, often supported with doctored images. Holocaust- and moon landing-denial hopefully provide two clear and non-partisan examples. There are many others that I refrain from posting in the hope of keeping this conversation above board. This shady content, further encouraged as click-bait, is no longer limited to Star and Enquirer front pages at the grocery store check out. Its prevalence is unprecedented given the channels that feed it. Freedom of expression is a core Western value. But next thing you know, we’ll be chasing down Sasquatch, mystical unicorns, and space zombies in earnest.

The rise of anti-intellectualism in our culture also undermines our professional values. A revolt against the “fancy, book-larnin’ types,” who have failed miserably in seeing and appreciating the big cultural picture recently, suggests that one doesn’t need to consult authentic records and record sources when gut feelings and “what cousin Joe said” will do. Real intellect and knowledge are derived from a true, authoritative record base. And they are in tough times.

Journalist Charles Taylor recently made the distinction between not knowing and not wanting to know. Initially stating that we can’t blame people for the former, as an educator, he rethinks this contention. Why? Because:

“Too many students [are] unaware of anything before they were born: creative-writing students who have never heard of Edith Wharton or Ralph Ellison; journalism students who can’t identify the attorney general; students who don’t know what the NAACP or the Geneva Convention are. A teacher’s job is to teach, not shame. But how do you teach when, even when they reach college, students are not expected to have basic knowledge of our history, our culture, our government?”

Our Principle of Integrity – “An information governance program will be constructed so the information generated by or managed for the organization has a reasonable and suitable guarantee of authenticity and reliability” –  is threatened at the societal level by the fake news and fact denial phenomenon. If your organization consumes published info, then you are a stakeholder in this. Both fake news and purportedly fake news have also been so highly politicized on both sides of the spectrum that consensus as to the real record in these cases seems hopelessly mired in partisanship. In other words, if you look at something long and hard enough, you just might see what you want to see.

One can argue that the Principle of Integrity covers organizational records and not society’s. But what prevents a society that embraces such confusion and fact rejection from filtering into the organizational culture? And how do we as keepers of the record foster and champion fact integrity in our broader culture? Do we take a position on this issue as a profession? Or is that not our concern? I think that we should care about this.

Happy holiday and New Year wishes to my friends and colleagues.


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