When Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard took off his jersey to reveal a Superman costume on Saturday night, he had every single one of the 17,961 fans packed into New Orleans Arena in the palm of his hand. He could have tripped on his shoelaces and fallen, and yet the people would swear they’d seen him fly.

All-Star Saturday Night, a raucous event during the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Weekend, features the storied slam-dunk competition. As the sports media congregated in New Orleans, all week it buzzed about Howard, the 6-foot, 11-inch giant with the agility of a man half his size and bulging biceps that would put even Shaquille O’Neal to shame. Though a player as tall as Howard generally lacks the leaping ability of truly spectacular dunkers, he was the consensus favorite.

After scoring a perfect 50 on his first dunk, Howard emerged with a Superman costume and cape to attempt his second dunk. He lined up at mid-court, dashed toward the rim, caught a bounce pass from a teammate and took off from just inside the free-throw line, a veritable missile bearing in on its target.

Some people may not have seen what happened next – but it didn’t matter. As the crowd and the commentators on TNT exploded in cheers before Howard even landed, it was impossible to mistake it: This was the greatest dunk in history.

Never mind that it didn’t actually happen.

Though Howard received another perfect score, replays showed that the ball was slipping from his hand and onto his wrist as he attempted the dunk. Feeling the ball slip, Howard simply threw it through the hoop without his hand ever touching the rim. In previous dunk contests, such a “dunk” may not even have counted, and the judges would definitely dock points due to the fact that you have to actually dunk the ball in a dunk contest.

But not this time. Not for Howard. Not for what this story had become.

And so it was that Dwight Howard revitalized the dunk contest, the NBA, sports and America itself. There it is, all neatly packaged for you to consume – the little inconveniences of fact and truth filtered out for convenience.

But what does that matter? It was just some trivial dunk contest in something as meaningless as sports. Surely a little embellishment by the media makes no difference? Perhaps not, but consider that this is exactly the same thing the national media has always done with presidential campaigns, and this whole media narrative thing becomes a pretty serious hurdle.

In his 1993 book “Out of Order,” Thomas Patterson outlined a now classic argument, decrying the media for its obsession with forecasting and anointing winners and losers. Patterson stressed that the media has become the main stage of political discussion, a role it was never meant to serve. The media wants to tell a story, and it will do that, often regardless of the facts.

For this love of a solitary, definitive narrative that makes the real world easy to understand – and sell – the media is willing to simplify complex issues of ideology, theory and circumstance into 30-second pieces consumed with all the trouble of a two-bite brownie.

So it is that Barack Obama is the candidate of change, never mind how much he has diluted his message. John McCain is a maverick, never mind that he has been a puppet of the Bush administration on some of the most important issues of the day. Hillary Clinton has the experience, never mind that she simply doesn’t. Mike Huckabee is crazy because he doesn’t believe in evolution, never mind that, as Daily columnist Karl Stampfl pointed out last week (Republicans and your tuition, 02/11/2008), he’s actually the Republican most friendly to education and students.

This is something you must all know by now: You shouldn’t just believe what you hear. Instead you should take the trouble to understand it for yourself. But do any of us bother to cut through the inane fallacies emerging each night from the CNN “Election Center” or its equivalents on Fox News and MSNBC? The 24-hour cable news cycle is something our generation will always live with: We had better learn to understand how to slice through it while maintaining that most basic tenant of democracy – political awareness.

The national media may have said that the Michigan primary didn’t matter, but I know it mattered to voters like me. It also mattered to me that, if Huckabee was the only frontrunner to raise his hand and profess disbelief in evolution, he may well have been the only one who didn’t lie.

Little things like the truth should matter to you, too.

Imran Syed was the Daily’s fall/winter editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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