Today's Washington Post article "McCain Camp Hits Obama On More Than One Front" by Jonathan Weisman and Peter Slevin is a textbook example of how news organizations privilege bogus attacks.
In the first paragraph, Weisman and Slevin report that McCain's camp accused Obama of "a sexist smear." The fourth paragraph contains two more mentions of Obama's alleged "sexist attacks" and "alleged sexism." Paragraphs 5 and 6 consist of quotes of Republican members of congress accusing Obama of sexism. The 7th paragraph mentions a McCain "Internet ad charging that the Democrat had referred to Palin as a pig." Paragraphs 9 and 10 report that "McCain allies" think their attacks are working.
In paragraph 11, we are finally told that "Obama aides say the assaults will not work, arguing that all of the accusations against him are a reach, if not fabrications. The sexism allegation stemmed from a comment Obama made in Virginia during a talk in which he did not mention Palin."
Eleven paragraphs in, the Weisman and Slevin finally get around to telling us that the Obama campaign says the accusations are fabrications. Eleven paragraphs into the article, after five different repetitions of the attack on Obama for being "sexist," the Washington Post finally gets around to telling readers that the accusations referred to comments in which Obama didn't even mention Palin.
Also in the first paragraph, Weisman and Slevin report that McCain's campaign said Obama "favored sex education for kindergartners" -- a charge they tell us about again in the seventh paragraph. In paragraph 15 (on the second page of the Web version of the article), Weisman and Slevin finally get around to the other side of the story:
The sex education ad referred to legislation Obama voted for -- but did not sponsor -- in the Illinois Senate that allowed school boards to develop "age-appropriate" sex education courses at all levels. Kindergarten teachers were given the approval to teach about appropriate and inappropriate touching to combat molestation.
Readers shouldn't have to wait fifteen paragraphs to find a response to a misleading attack reported in the lede.
Take a look.
With a tip of the hat to CJR (we told you we loved them), here's an updated tally on the number of times the cablers have mentioned "lipstick" in the recent Tuesday-into-Wednesday news cycle:
Fox News: 98
Here's a County Fair bonus contrast: The number of times each cabler in the same news cycle mentioned distressed lender, Fannie Mae?
Fox news: 20
MSNBC political analyst Joe Watkins wants you to think that Sally Quinn and David Gergen sit around at Georgetown cocktail parties using phrases like "lipstick on a pig" -- and that regular Americans don't understand what all that Beltway fancy talk means:
It's not what you say, it's what people hear you saying it. And for people inside the Beltway, who have heard that term and terminology a thousand times, it means one thing, but to people out around the country who have never before heard that, and especially in light of the fact that you have a candidate like Sarah Palin now on the Republican ticket, the reason why they laughed so hard when he said it is they thought he was referring to Sarah Palin.
But a retired Bristol, VA police employee who was actually in the crowd for Barack Obama's comments, disagrees:
JoAnn Vicars, a retired Bristol police employee, thought Obama's remark was great: "Loved it!" She and several friends scoffed at the idea that Obama was talking about Palin.
"That's the way we talk, buddy," Vicars said, in a raspy local accent.
Like Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias's recent media criticism has been very good. Today, he concludes:
It seems to me that if the practitioners of campaign journalism can't figure out a way to make it so that lying is punished, rather than amplified and rewarded, by the press then they ought to pack up their bags and go do something else.
The Times and the Post will repeat the McCain camp's petty lies and slams without an ounce of critical analysis, not because they believe the spin, but because there's a massive conservative infrastructure devoting to working the refs and getting the coverage the right wants. Try as David Brock and John Podesta may, Media Matters and Think Progress just don't have the same level of influence. I absolutely guarantee that if the Ron Fournier situation were reversed - if the AP Washington Bureau were run by a shameless Democratic hack instead of a GOP hack like Fournier - there'd be hell to pay. Howls of "liberal media bias" would be echoing across every talk radio station, the major conservative blogs, Fox News, and into the mailboxes, real and virtual, of every Republican voter. The bureau chief would be gone or tamed within a week or two. As it currently stands, Fournier still has his job, and he's still doing it as badly as you'd expect. Liberals just aren't as good at ref intimidation.
Part of the reason why this is true is that the Right realizes that it isn't enough for the Media Research Center and Accuracy In Media and the Heritage Foundation to engage in media criticism. They all do it; it's a staple of the entire conservative movement. So the refs get worked every day, by a wide variety of people -- from local activists to the President of the United States. The Republicans are all media critics.
Progressives understand this much better than they did a few years ago, but there's a long way to go. (Ezra Klein is doing his part: his writing about the media's coverage of the presidential campaign has been excellent lately.)
MSNBC's Contessa Brewer, in the midst of yet another segment devoted to lipstick lies: "Obama calls this 'phony outrage,' but if it's all made up, then why does he feel the need to address it today?"
Maybe because MSNBC is talking about this garbage all day?
Media entities could have had an internal conversation along the lines of: "This is stupid; let's cover the education stuff." Instead, news outlets are either giving McCain evil-genuis points for turning a nothing into a something, or are calling out the McCain campaign for being mean and duplicitous, but in any event, voters on the periphery of the conversation only hear enough to hear the accusations anyway.
Right. The important thing to remember is that nobody is forcing journalists to behave this way. They choose to do so. They choose to behave in a way that benefits stupid and dishonest claims.
And they can choose to stop. Or they can choose to continue. But either way, they're making a choice.