Media haven't learned from their "death panel" mistakes

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

GOP Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's health care speech sparked a media firestorm -- but the way many reporters covered Wilson's comments will only encourage further false claims.

The media's reaction to Republican Congressman Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's health care speech to Congress illustrated two bad habits that encourage exactly the kind of political behavior reporters claim to dislike.

First is the media's reluctance to "take sides" in factual disputes (which is, in effect, siding with the incorrect claim) and their apparent belief that rudeness is a greater sin than lying. Scores of news reports covered the controversy over Wilson's shouted claim that the president was lying when he said proposed health care reform would not apply to those who are in America illegally -- but they focused on the breach of decorum rather than the question of whether Obama or Wilson was correct. (Independent, nonpartisan observers like PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org have made clear that Wilson was wrong; Obama was not lying.)

Thursday's broadcast of the CBS Evening News, for example, led with a report about Wilson's outburst, during which anchor Katie Couric told viewers, "The congressman apologizes, but insists he's right on the issue." The report did not contain so much as a hint that Wilson is wrong on the issue: no assessment by CBS News, no reference to independent fact-checkers, not even a line about Democrats saying Wilson is wrong.

Likewise, MSNBC spent much of the day obsessing over the rudeness of Wilson's comment -- and relatively little making clear it was false. During one such segment, MSNBC played two minutes of Wilson talking about his comment, including a lengthy defense of the merits of his claim. Then, more a full minute after the end of the clip, anchor Tamron Hall provided the segment's only assessment of who was right: "There's also been a number of fact-checkers who said that Congressman Wilson is wrong, that there was nothing to indicate." That's it -- that's all she said. And it got worse. Andrea Mitchell led off her show with a discussion of Wilson's comments; 28 minutes later, during what was at least the third segment of her show that touched on Wilson's comments, Mitchell finally offered a tepid acknowledgement that Obama was correct.

Print and Internet coverage wasn't much better. The New York Times devoted an entire article to Wilson's comment -- an article that took no position on who was right and referred to no independent sources that did so. One Washington Times article quoted Wilson explaining why -- according to him -- Obama was lying, but omitted not only any of the independent determinations that Wilson was wrong but any comment from Democrats that Wilson was wrong. Then, a little later, the newspaper sent out a fundraising e-mail on behalf of Wilson.

It's obvious how this is going to play out. Before too long, polls will show a large minority -- maybe even a majority -- of Americans believe that Democratic reform proposals will provide subsidized insurance for people who are in the country illegally. And when that happens, Howard Kurtz and MSNBC will be gobsmacked. They'll wonder how this can be, when the media was so aggressive in reporting on Wilson's false comments. It'll never occur to them that the problem is their focus on the rudeness of Wilson's comment rather than the falsity of the comment; that they are to blame for doing a lousy job of fact-checking Wilson's comment while giving it priceless attention.

That is, after all, exactly what happened with things like Sarah Palin's "death panel" lie.

The other counterproductive media tic that surfaced once again this week is the tendency of many reporters to insist that no matter how far over the line a member of one political party goes, there's someone just as prominent in the other party who has done something comparable. This false equivalence serves to justify the worst behavior -- "Oh, everybody does it" -- thus contributing to the downward spiral of our public discourse.

Take, for example, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank. Last seen calling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a "bitch" (and, shortly before that, calling Huffington Post reporter Nico Pitney a "dick"), Milbank took it upon himself to bemoan the loss of civility in American politics. But he didn't stop at Wilson's shouted lie, or the pastor in Arizona who says he's praying for Obama's death, or the Republican members of Congress who waved protest signs during the president's speech to Congress. No, Milbank needed an example of comparable Democratic behavior -- you know, for "balance." So he came up with two: a Democrat who "insisted on making a victory sign with his hand and waving it at Obama," and another who made what Milbank described as "a fascist salute."

"Fascist salute"? I don't even know what that means, and Milbank didn't explain. But that's a grossly inappropriate way to describe what Rep. Al Green did -- and one that conveniently plays into the right-wing memes that Obama is just like Hitler and Mao. Most of all, it demonstrates the problem with the "both sides do it" school of reporting.

But Milbank may have been outdone by the Politico, which ran an article about Republicans behaving badly -- Palin's "death panel" lie, the birther conspiracy theories, claiming Obama seeks to "indoctrinate" schoolchildren by encouraging them to study. But, Politico quickly added, it isn't just Republicans who cross the line:

Nor are Democrats strangers to having their crazy uncles take center stage. During the run-up to the Iraq war, for example, Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and David Bonior (D-Mich.) famously flew to Baghdad, where McDermott asserted that he believed the president would "mislead the American public" to justify the war. The trip made it a cakewalk for critics to describe the Democratic Party as chock-a-block with traitorous radicals.

President Bush, as you may remember, did mislead the American public to justify going to war with Iraq. But to the Politico, saying so is the "crazy" statement of "traitorous radicals" -- and on the level of claiming Obama is a secret Kenyan with a plan to kill your grandmother and indoctrinate your children. According to the Politico, a member of Congress less than 1 percent of the American public could pick out of a lineup correctly saying Bush would mislead the nation about Iraq is comparable to the most recent Republican vice presidential nominee falsely suggesting Obama wants to put your loved ones to death.

To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction: It ain't the same ballpark, it ain't the same league, it ain't even the same sport.

Now, what happens when the media refuse to call a lie a lie and insist that, no matter how badly you behave, your political adversaries have done something similar? Right: It encourages politicians to behave badly and lie. The negative consequences are mitigated, and it gets them attention.

Given the way the media covers these things, it isn't surprising that people who oppose health care reform feel comfortable lying and being disruptive. Why wouldn't they?

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.

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