• Privileging the lie, continued

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Today's Washington Post has an article by Shankar Vedantam about the difficulty of debunking misinformation:

    [A] series of new experiments show that misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people's minds after it has been debunked -- even among people who recognize it as misinformation. In some cases, correcting misinformation serves to increase the power of bad information.

    Vedantam wrote a similar article for the Post almost exactly a year ago:

    The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.


    The experiments do not show that denials are completely useless; if that were true, everyone would believe the myths. But the mind's bias does affect many people, especially those who want to believe the myth for their own reasons, or those who are only peripherally interested and are less likely to invest the time and effort needed to firmly grasp the facts.

    The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

    Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true. [emphasis added]

    The bolded portions of Vedantam's September 4, 2007 article should hold obvious lessons for journalists.

    First: it should never, ever be considered acceptable to quote a candidate or official making a false claim without noting its falsity. Reporters do this all the time, justifying it by saying they're just presenting both sides, or that they aren't making the false claim, they're just reporting it, or saying they corrected three other false claims in the article. That is not sufficient: if a journalist includes a false or misleading claim in their news report -- in any form -- without indicating that is false, they are actively helping to spread misinformation.

    Second: the way in which news reports debunk misinformation matters a great deal. If Candidate A lies about Candidate B, for example, the fact that Candidate A is lying should be the lede - otherwise the news report just drills the false claim into readers' and viewers' minds, allowing the misinformation to take hold before it is corrected. As I wrote in my column on Friday, the news media too often privileges lies rather than punishing them.

    Here's one example from last week: the Washington Post repeated the allegation that Barack Obama had made a sexist comment in five different paragraphs before it finally got around to indicating that the allegation was false (and even then, the Post did not say clearly that it was false.)

    Here's another from last week: CBS devoted 5 minutes to "lipstick," other McCain attacks before reporting that "lipstick" attack was bogus

    Much more here.

  • E.J. Dionne wonders

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Why, in light of the financial meltdown currently underway, the topic of the economy and Wall Street have been nearly invisible on the campaign trail. He, "can't believe how small a role our economic crisis is playing in the campaign coverage."

    Here's our hunch: The press doesn't care about that issue because it's not fun. Polls are fun to cover. VP picks are fun to speculate about. The chronic sickness of Wall Street? Not so fun so, prior to today, it was shoved into the shadows.

  • NYT plays dumb about McCain-Bush

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Writing in the Times, John Harwood looks at the tricky position McCain finds himself in with the need to separate himself from the an historically unpopular GOP president. Harwood looks around and suggests the last candidate who faced a similar quandary was Al Gore when he ran in 2000 in the shadow of Bill Clinton.

    Now, to the layman that comparison might seem absurd since at the time of the 2000 campaign Clinton's approval rating was above 50 percent and the country was still basking in peace in prosperity. But back in 2000 the press was obsessed with what it perceived to be Clinton's huge impeachment-related drag on the Gore ticket. The press chattered about the issue endlessly during the campaign. For many campaign reporters, Clinton legacy and role in the campaign was the single most important issue of the race. No joke.

    Fast forward eight years and boy, you sure don't hear much chatter about how Bush is going to impact the race do you? It's almost like an embarrassed press corps is just as anxious for Bush to leave the stage as McCain, isn't it?

  • MoDo, eight years late

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    It's amazing how so many pundits who spent the entire 2000 mocking Al Gore, telling us how phony and abnormal and boring he was, and how authentic George W. Bush was, now try to rewrite history and pretend that they saw right through W. eight years ago. Add Maureen Dowd to the list of fictional I-told-you-so's.

    In her Sunday column, Down writes:

    The really scary part of the Palin interview was how much she seemed like W. in 2000, and not just the way she pronounced nu-cue-lar. She had the same flimsy but tenacious adeptness at saying nothing, the same generalities and platitudes, the same restrained resentment at being pressed to be specific, as though specific is the province of silly eggheads, not people who clear brush at the ranch or shoot moose on the tundra.

    Palin's a lightweight just like W. in 2000, Dowd warns us. It would have been nice if Dowd had, y'know, actually warned us about that eight years ago instead of obsessing over Gore's trumped up faults.

  • Old habits die hard

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    These are the three latest entries on the Los Angeles Times' "Top of the Ticket" blog:

    "The Ticket's weekly national electoral map; McCain's bounce gains 2 states": Actually, The Ticket's national electoral map is Karl Rove's electoral map. Literally: "Here is the latest national electoral map constructed by Karl Rove & Co., which The Ticket publishes weekly as they become available."

    "So, looks like it was Charlie Gibson's gaffe on Bush doctrine, not Sarah Palin's": Based on nothing more than the say-so of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, The Ticket leaps to Sarah Palin's defense, approvingly quotes Krauthammer's attacks on Gibson, and snidely concludes: Wonder if there'll be time to cover this story on 'World News' come Monday night." But even Krauthammer acknowledges "Palin didn't know" what the Bush doctrine is. The Ticket quotes that acknowledgment - but still asserts that Palin didn't commit a "gaffe" on the question. Bizarre.

    "Oops, Obama ad mocks McCain's inability to send e-mail. Trouble is, he can't due to tortured fingers": The Ticket picks up on conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg's spin and runs with it. The Ticket doesn't mention that McCain told the New York Times earlier this year, "I use the Blackberry, but I don't e-mail, I've never felt the particular need to e-mail." If he can use the buttons on a Blackberry, it seems pretty safe to assume the Goldberg/Ticket line is just spin. (h/t John Cole, via Atrios)

    So: a post in which The Ticket uncritically adopts as fact Jonah Goldberg's defense of John McCain, a post in which The Ticket uncritically adopts Charles Krauthammer's defense of Sarah Palin, and a post in which The Ticket adopts Karl Rove's electoral map as its own.

    Now, would it surprise you to learn that all three entries were written by Los Angeles Times reporter Andrew Malcolm? Would it surprise you to learn that Malcolm used to be Laura Bush's press secretary?

  • UPI still exists?

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    The struggling wire service, owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, has been fading fast in recent years. Is this why? In a reaction piece to the Palin/Gibson interview, UPI runs a wildly opinionated piece, although it's not tagged as an editorial, that claims, "Gibson was out to embarrass Palin and expose her presumed ignorance from the word go," and that the ABC host was "out for blood and inherently applied a double-standard compared."

    That seems to be putting the thumb on the scale, don't you think?