Privileging the lie
Earlier this week, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote that there was "[n]o blowback" against the McCain campaign for its repeated false claims about Sarah Palin's role in stopping the Bridge to Nowhere. Ambinder explained:
[T]he electorate doesn't seem to penalize campaigns for deliberately distorting the record of their candidate and their opponent. It's probably an artifact of twenty years' worth of campaign advertisements and has something to do with the way consumers process news.
Ambinder is completely wrong. First, the electorate does penalize campaigns for deliberate distortions ... sometimes.
This isn't conjecture. We need only look back at 2000 to see a campaign in which the electorate seemed to penalize a candidate for distortions.
Exit polls showed that, by a large margin, a plurality of voters identified the candidates' honesty and trustworthiness as the quality most important to them in deciding how to vote. Of the voters who thought honesty was the most important quality, 80 percent voted for George W. Bush; only 15 percent voted for Al Gore.
A whopping 74 percent thought "Gore would say anything to get elected," compared to 58 percent who thought the same about Bush. Sixty percent thought Gore attacked Bush "unfairly," while only 49 percent thought Bush attacked Gore unfairly.
In an election that came down to a handful of votes, the perception of Gore as less honest than Bush and more willing to say anything to get elected may well have been determinative.
So, why did Gore get "blowback" from voters for (supposedly) being dishonest -- and why isn't John McCain facing similar blowback?
Because there is a clear difference in the way the media have portrayed the two candidates.
A dominant theme of campaign coverage in 2000 -- perhaps the dominant theme -- was that Al Gore was a liar, a serial exaggerator, and a vicious, power-hungry candidate willing to say and do anything to get elected. (The evidence to support this theme was largely fabricated -- and not merely by the Republicans, but by the news media, particularly The New York Times and The Washington Post.)
Jane Hall explained in the September/October 2000 issue of Columbia Journalism Review:
The underlying message of all of these stories was clear: Al Gore is a lying politician who will do anything to get elected -- a theme happily echoed by the Bush-Cheney campaign.
Gore's motives are frequently questioned, frequently framed in the most negative light -- even in the lead of straight-news stories from some of the most respected and influential news organizations.
A new study by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism underscores this. Examining 2,400 newspaper, TV, and Internet stories in five different weeks between February and June, researchers found that a whopping 76 percent of the coverage included one of two themes: that Gore lies and exaggerates or is marred by scandal.
The substance of what Gore has been saying in speeches around the country often has been wrapped in reporters' cynical language that effectively casts doubt about his motives before he even opens his mouth.
The frame of the news reports about Gore's (not really) false claims was Al Gore is a liar, he exaggerates, he'll say anything to win. Is it any wonder voters tended to think Al Gore would say anything to win? Is it any wonder voters who put a great deal of value on honesty chose Bush?
The frame of most news reports about false claims made by McCain (and Palin and their staff) is very different. The frame isn't John McCain is lying again; it is John McCain said something; how will Barack Obama respond? Some of those news reports get around to mentioning that McCain's claim isn't true -- but those passing mentions hardly matter. They aren't the dominant theme of the report, so they don't stick in the minds of readers and viewers.
Here's an example: Yesterday, The Washington Post ran an article about McCain's attacks on Obama, including his false charge that Obama's use of the phrase "lipstick on a pig" was a sexist reference to Sarah Palin. Paragraphs 1, 5, 6, and 7 contained the allegation in various forms. Paragraphs 9 and 10 were about McCain allies saying the attacks were working. Paragraph 11 finally brought the first indication that the attack wasn't true.
Constructing the article that way privileges the false claim. Readers have it drummed into their heads, over and over again, before they finally see a fleeting suggestion that it isn't true.
So how else could the Post have constructed that article? Well, the article could have begun not with an unchallenged recitation of McCain's false claim, but with a very different frame: "John McCain launched another dishonest attack on Barack Obama, the latest in a long line of claims that have been debunked and denounced by neutral observers as false, misleading, and in some cases, lies." It could have gone on to detail the growing body of evidence that McCain is running a dishonest campaign and to note that McCain risks being seen as a serial liar who will say anything to get elected.
Sound judgmental? Maybe. But it's quite consistent with coverage of Al Gore in 2000 -- coverage about things he said that were not actually false.
Besides, news organizations make judgments all the time. The Washington Post made the judgment that the best way to report the story would be to repeat the false allegation in four separate paragraphs before finally, 11 paragraphs into the story, giving some indication that it was false. That's supposed to be better, or more appropriate, or more ethical than making the judgment that the most important thing about McCain's attack was that it was false? Please. That's absurd. That doesn't reflect any principle or standard of good journalism, it just reflects the media's steadfast belief that John McCain is a straight-talker, no matter how much he says things that aren't true -- and their fearful refusal to risk the wrath of Mark Salter and the army of Republican operatives who will attack them for "bias" if they don't frame the story in a way favorable to their candidate.
And that's just what happened this week. Journalists who knew McCain's "lipstick on a pig" charge was pure bunk framed their reports about it as though it might be true -- and as though the important thing was not one campaign lying about the other, but whether the lies would be effective. The Washington Post article described above is but one example of many. Here's another -- a small one, but illustrative of the media's approach to McCain's false charges. MSNBC.com ran an online poll asking if "Sen. Barack Obama went too far with his 'lipstick on a pig' remark." Readers were offered just three choices:
- Yes, he has crossed the line this time.
- No, this is just part of the rough-and-tumble of political campaigning.
- I don't know.
The poll was about Obama's conduct, rather than McCain's conduct in launching a false attack. It privileged McCain's false claim, rather than punishing it. And it didn't even give people an option that reflected the truth: There was nothing "rough-and-tumble" about Obama's comments; John McCain was dishonestly attacking him.
On Wednesday, MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall offered viewers another poll: "Do you think Obama's lipstick comments were aimed at Palin?" Since Obama's comments obviously were not aimed at Palin, you might think they would have instead run a poll asking, "Do you think John McCain is lying about Barack Obama?" But no: They kept their focus on Obama's conduct.
And that's what happened for much of the week. Journalists who knew McCain's charge did not have merit pretended that was an open question; television segments and newspaper articles were devoted to the question of whether Obama had made a sexist comment, rather than whether McCain was lying.
But this is not a new development. It has been going on for weeks, if not longer. On August 1, I noted that despite a lengthy list of news organizations and independent organizations that had debunked false claims by McCain and his campaign, the media were repeating the claims over and over:
All week, McCain's attacks have been driving news coverage. Those same news organizations that have declared McCain's charges false have given them an extraordinary amount of attention, repeating them over and over. They have adopted the premises of the McCain attacks even as they acknowledge the attacks are based on false claims. The media narrative of the week has not been, as you might expect, that John McCain's apparent dishonesty may hurt him with voters. Instead, the media's basic approach has been to debunk McCain's attacks once, then run a dozen stories about how the attacks are sticking, how the "emerging narrative" will hurt Obama.
But attacks don't just stick and narratives don't just emerge. The only reason that the topic of the week was whether Obama is presumptuous instead of whether McCain is a liar who will do anything to get elected is that the news media decided to make Obama's purported flaws the topic of the week -- even after debunking the charges upon which the characterization is based. It's as though the news media -- so concerned about lies (that weren't really lies) in 2000 -- have suddenly decided that it doesn't matter that the McCain campaign is launching false attack after false attack. That it's the kind of thing you note once, then adopt the premise of the attack.
Here's how the National Journal's John Mercurio described the dynamic currently at play:
John McCain's campaign recently declared that the sky is red, with green and yellow polka dots. Armed with binders full of research and a New York Times op-ed, Barack Obama angrily jabbed his finger at the sky and countered that it is blue. McCain's campaign accused Obama of anti-skyism. Cable TV talkers spent the next 48 hours debating the color of the sky and Obama's anti-skyist tendencies.
Remember: Al Gore said one time, "During my time in Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet" -- and the media ran wild, belittling him for falsely claiming to have invented the Internet (he didn't; he correctly noted that he played a key role in fighting for funding for its development, an accomplishment acknowledged by even Newt Gingrich). They belittled him as a liar and an exaggerator throughout the campaign based on that comment -- and they've done it for years ever since.
By comparison, Think Progress has been keeping track of how often McCain, Palin, and their campaign's surrogates falsely claim that Palin stopped the Bridge to Nowhere, and they had found 27 such claims through Wednesday.
Al Gore made his Internet comment one time -- a comment that wasn't even false -- and was relentlessly ridiculed as a liar by the media.
Just imagine what would have happened if he had said it 27 times. Imagine how the media would have reacted if he kept exaggerating his accomplishments the same way even after having been called on it.
And yet even this week, amid widespread media recognition that McCain and his campaign aren't telling the truth about themselves or their opponent, you can still turn on CNN and see journalists dutifully referring to McCain riding the "Straight Talk Express." And over on MSNBC, viewers saw Chris Matthews insist that John McCain would not personally engage in the false attacks his campaign was leveling. Ridiculous: First, McCain is responsible for what his campaign does -- particularly when the "something" in question consists of a multi-day offensive involving a surrogate operation and an advertisement. Second, McCain himself made the false claim that Obama had engaged in a personal attack with his "lipstick on a pig" comment. But that's the way the media treat McCain: Even when they know his claims are false, they refer to "straight talk" and insist that he wouldn't throw "slime" (Matthews' word) like that.
Defending his statement that there isn't voter backlash against McCain's false claims, Marc Ambinder wrote:
And, of course, though the press has pointed out the Bridge to Nowhere exagerration ever since it was uncovered, it must somehow be the press's fault that John McCain is enjoying a post-convention something-or-other because Americans don't realize that he's a lying liar, or whatever.
Well, yes, it is the press's fault, in large part.
First, Ambinder overstated the extent to which the media had pointed out McCain/Palin's Bridge to Nowhere falsehood, as Media Matters illustrated this week. It isn't enough to debunk a false claim some of the times that you report it. The media must do so every time they report the claim.
Second, the way in which falsehoods are debunked is crucial. When a candidate makes a false claim, reporters can respond one of three ways:
- They can ignore it, on the basis that a false claim is unworthy of attention.
- They can adopt the false claim as the basis of their report, as they did with this week's stories about whether or not Barack Obama had made a sexist comment about Sarah Palin.
- They can produce a report centered on the fact that the candidate is saying something that is untrue. If it is the latest of many falsehoods, they can indicate that. If the candidate is telling more and larger falsehoods than the opposition, they can make that clear. In short, they can make the lack of credibility of the person making the false claim the theme of their coverage.
The first option privileges the lie by allowing a candidate to run around saying things that are not true -- but at least it does not help spread the lie further.
The second option -- even if it includes mention of the fact that the claim is false -- privileges the lie a great deal by helping the candidate spread the false claims. At the end of the day, what most people take away from this week's media coverage of the lipstick flap is likely that there is some controversy around whether Barack Obama made a sexist comment about Sarah Palin. That's a clear advantage to McCain -- and thus the media's handling of the episode has rewarded his falsehood.
The third option punishes the falsehood. If you think the media's job is to bring their readers and viewers the truth, this is obviously the best of the three options.
This is where some will say "but then reporters will be taking sides."
And there is some truth to that: They'll be taking the truth's side.
Reporters "take sides" with everything they do. Everything they do involves a choice, involves a decision that X is more important than Y. When they report a lie five times before reporting the fact that it is false, they are taking the lie's side.
The question isn't whether reporters should "take sides" -- they can't possibly avoid taking sides.
The only question is whether they will side with truth or with fiction.