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Believing people who should know

A few days ago the Reno Gazette Journal, which has been running front page historical items about Nevada during this 149th year of statehood, published an item reporting that “Ronald Reagan’s rally for Republican candidates for state office at the University of Nevada, Reno quad on Oct. 7, 1982, was the first visit to campus by a sitting U.S. president.”

It’s always good to put mistakes on the front page. As it happens, Theodore Roosevelt as president visited what was then called Nevada State University in Reno in 1903.

The newspaper’s error was understandable. It got the information from the University of Nevada, Reno, and from the UNR library’s University Archives. This is one of those unforeseeable pitfalls — relying on people who are supposed to know, and don’t.

A few years ago I spent a summer tutoring two high school students to get them ready for their senior year journalism class and being on the school newspaper staff. At our first session I showed them a map of the world in a Hammond world atlas and pointed out that Greenland and Africa seemed to be about the same size. Then I told them the size of Greenland and the size of just ONE African nation — Algeria. Greenland was so comparatively tiny (836,109 square miles) that it would fit entirely inside Algeria (919,595). Greenland is only 7 percent the size of Africa. My point to them was that sometimes folks who are SUPPOSED to know do not.

I’ve written before of how, in 1988, a group of Russians was touring the United States and Reno was one of their stops. Nevada Secretary of State Frankie Sue Del Papa was their local host, and she arranged for them to be outfitted at a Reno department store with dungarees, which had a ridiculously high value in the Soviet Union.

I was her deputy secretary of state, and I drafted a news release that began something like, “A group of Russian diplomats will be outfitted with jeans in the city where they were invented.” A Reno tailor named Jacob Davis had created the work pants for local ranch hands who complained that their pants were not durable enough. He used rivets on denim to give pants with a longer life.

After the news release went out, a Reno radio reporter did what good reporters should do and seldom do these days. He called Levi Strauss and Co. in San Francisco and asked if it was true. A spokesperson denied it, saying that Levi Strauss himself had invented jeans. I had to run around and prove my case, which was tedious but not difficult, because there had been a trademark infringement case that established the facts. But how come Levi Strauss didn’t know its own history?

In February 1992 Levis sent out a letter signed by two company archivists asking for help in reassembling the company’s history and archives, which had not been maintained. It asked for information on other names under which the company might have operated, copies of documentation on company history that members of the public might own, and help screening out myths and rumors.

The problem today is that the assumption is widespread that because sometimes authoritative people are wrong, ALL authority is up for grabs. Corporations and billionaires whose pursuit of commerce is hampered by science hire public relations firms to discredit that science. Activists who hold ideological beliefs embrace data that supports their dogma and reject data that does not. Claims that are factually inaccurate become “true” because they are repeated frequently enough, often by journalists.

We need some way of sorting out the claims and counter-claims. “The United States is the only developed nation in the world that does not mandate media literacy as part of its public-school curriculum,” writes author Douglas Rushkoff, who knows the techniques of manipulation from his work as a media consultant. Those techniques, he wrote, “are rapidly spreading from the sales floor and the television screen to almost every other aspect of our daily experience.”

Nevada schools include this kind of instruction, but it starts late and is usually a part of a larger curriculum instead of a course of instruction of its own.

Children, who are manipulated by everything from breakfast cereal companies to competing divorced parents, need this instruction. And the society generally needs it because we all become adults and the manipulation then gets even more sophisticated.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.