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Lessons from the election

There are lessons to be learned from our last local election, but the ones I see are different from those seen by Downtown Newsmagazine (Endnote, Dec. 2021). 


Downtown sees the divisiveness characteristic of national politics suddenly arriving at Birmingham's doorstep. But divisiveness, and all that it entails, has been with us for decades.


What’s new here, and unsettling, is what the Aspen Institute recently dubbed Information Disorder — “a crisis of trust and truth” in which “bad information has become as prevalent, persuasive, and persistent as good information, creating a chain reaction of harm.”


Downtown doesn’t help our understanding of this problem when it draws a false equivalence between those who spread disinformation and those who call it out. “This year, sadly, a new low has been breached between individuals involved in the Birmingham City Commission election,” it wrote, “with one side alleging the spreading of lies and big money involvement and the other asserting anti-Semitism.” 


I see it another way: One side — with a history of sowing discord, a propensity for alleging conspiracies, and no winning ideas on which to campaign — spread disinformation about the city’s master plan. Videos published online by two candidates for commission were demonstrably false. The goal was to generate fear and anger, and exploit those emotions for campaign contributions and votes.


Downtown could have exposed this disinformation but did not. I did -– in characteristically and justifiably stark terms – and most of what I said was supported by four other commissioners and an array of others, not all “on my side.” We did have one thing in common, though: a regard for the truth. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a charge of anti-Semitism from  political rivals and a scolding from Downtown.


I appreciate the support of Downtown and the city’s ethics board in rejecting the charge of anti-Semitism. I also appreciate the forum that Downtown provides for discussion and debate of local issues. We’re blessed to have it continue to inform our democracy. 


But as the press in general declines, others must step in. So real estate agent and planning board member Stuart Jeffares, for example, publishes the excellent quarterly, Burb; the city sends out more news through a variety of channels, and I send out email blasts that are occasionally opinionated and more than occasionally informative. We need more, not less, of this kind of stuff. 


Yet Downtown thinks I should give thought to shutting down my newsletter. Well, let me say this about that: Elected officials do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they take office. Au contraire. They have an obligation to communicate frankly with constituents. And they have an obligation to correct the record and call out mis- and disinformation and those who spread it.


If Downtown doesn't like my emails, there's an unsubscribe link at the bottom of each. Click it and ye shall be free.


Clinton Baller

City Commissioner

Birmingham

(Publisher's note: It was the responsibility of other candidates in the election to challenge the disinformation of the two candidates who put out falsehoods about the developing city master plan, which we would have gladly covered, as we did when Baller and other city commissioners at a public meeting just prior to the election called out the two candidates.)

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