The media debunk McCain smears, then promote them
One of the dominant themes in media coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign was that Al Gore was a liar. That theme was itself a lie; media outlets invented quotes Gore never said in order to accuse him of dishonesty, all while virtually ignoring actual lies from George W. Bush. Inaccurate and imbalanced as that media coverage was, it reflected at least one assumption that seems inarguably true: It is significant, and newsworthy, when a presidential candidate and his campaign repeatedly make false claims.
But it seems reporters throw that assumption out the window when the presidential candidate making the false claims is one the media have long praised for his "straight talk" and his opponent is one the media have begun accusing of being "arrogant" or "presumptuous."
Over the past few weeks, and especially the past week, numerous news organizations and other neutral observers have debunked a series of false claims made by John McCain and his campaign.
FactCheck.org, for example, has called one McCain attack ad "false," said another contains a "false" insinuation, described another as misleading, called another "ridiculous" and added, "That's absurd, and McCain knows it." FactCheck said the attacks in yet another McCain ad are "oversimplified to the point of being seriously misleading," noting that by the standards of evidence the McCain campaign used in the ad, the Arizona senator himself could be criticized precisely the same way. FactCheck called criticisms McCain has leveled against Obama's tax plans "bunk," adding, "He's wrong," and stating that McCain is using a "false and preposterously inflated figure" to attack Obama. They called another McCain attack "simply wrong" and "not true." They said yet another McCain ad "gets nearly all its facts wrong. ... [E]very number in the ad is wrong, except one. ... And even that number is rounded upward so generously as to flunk third-grade arithmetic." And FactCheck called yet another McCain attack "trickery" based on an "inflated and misleading" number that was the result of "Double, Triple and Quadruple Counting."
And that's just in the past month.
The Washington Post has reported that "McCain and his allies" are accusing Obama of "snubbing wounded soldiers by canceling a visit to a military hospital because he could not take reporters with him, despite no evidence that the charge is true" and noted that the evidence the McCain campaign provided to back up the claim did not do so. The New York Times reported that McCain's recent offensive against Obama has been based on claims that have been "widely dismissed as misleading," which is actually an understatement -- they've been widely dismissed as false. A St. Petersburg Times editorial denounced McCain's "nasty turn into the gutter," adding that he "has resorted to lies and distortions in what sounds like an increasingly desperate attempt to slow down Sen. Barack Obama. ... [T]hese baseless attacks are raising more questions about the Republican's campaign and his ability to control his temper." The New York Times editorial board called another McCain attack "contemptible" and "ugly." On MSNBC, Time magazine Washington bureau chief Jay Carney called a McCain ad "reprehensible." MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell reported that a McCain ad is "completely wrong, factually wrong" and that it "literally is not true." The Cleveland Plain Dealer rated a McCain campaign ad a "zero" on its 0-to-10 scale of truthfulness.
All that -- and much, much more -- has come in just the past week.
In short, nearly every recent attack by the McCain campaign on Obama -- and there have been many -- has been debunked by at least one news outlet and in most cases by several.
So what's the problem? Sounds like the media are doing their job, right?
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.
Examples from the past week are so numerous, it's difficult to even know where to begin. So let's start with Andrea Mitchell's interview of McCain campaign manager Rick Davis yesterday. Why start there? Because Mitchell has been widely praised for holding Davis' feet to the fire. But Mitchell's performance was actually quite bad; it is only because the rest of the media have been so bad that people thought Mitchell was good.
First, some background: Late last week, McCain and his campaign began claiming that Barack Obama canceled a visit to wounded troops because "the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras." Andrea Mitchell knows that this is a false claim; she has said so herself several times. Among other examples, she said on July 28 that "the McCain commercial on this subject is completely wrong, factually wrong" and that it "literally is not true."
So on July 31, Andrea Mitchell interviewed McCain campaign manager Rick Davis for more than 13 minutes -- and she didn't ask a single question premised on the McCain campaign's false attacks. Didn't say a single word that so much as hinted at what she knows to be true -- what she has said repeatedly: that McCain's attack on Obama was false.
Mitchell started things off by inviting Davis to elaborate on an attack he had leveled on Obama earlier that day. Next, she brought up the McCain campaign's ad comparing Obama to Paris Hilton:
MITCHELL: Well, let's talk about the celebrity ad. Now, the Obama campaign is responding to that, of course, because their take on it is that you are comparing him to two people, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, who are famous basically, for doing nothing. Whereas, he is a United States senator and the Democratic nominee. You know, how do you defend the ad?
Hardly a tough question; it once again boils down to an invitation to Davis to elaborate on the McCain campaign's criticisms of Obama.
Finally, after several minutes of bickering about the ad, Mitchell did ask a reasonably tough question, asking Davis to respond to criticism by longtime McCain confidant John Weaver that the ad is "tomfoolery" (though Mitchell omitted Weaver's strongest condemnation of the ad).
Next, Mitchell asked about the McCain campaign's criticism of Obama for not visiting the troops and Landstuhl -- sort of:
MITCHELL: OK. And were you guys ready, by the way, on the whole subject on visiting the troops, not visiting the troops at Landstuhl (INAUDIBLE)? Were you ready with an advertisement as some has suggested, in case he had visited the troops, to criticize him for doing it while on a political trip?
Incredibly, Andrea Mitchell, who knows the McCain campaign's Landstuhl allegations are false, who has said they are false, brought Landstuhl up during an interview with McCain's campaign manager -- and she didn't say a single word that so much as hinted at the fact that the McCain camp's allegations are false!
If you're Andrea Mitchell, and you've been saying repeatedly that the McCain campaign is making false claims about Barack Obama, and you get 13 minutes to interview John McCain's campaign manager, the single most important -- and obvious -- question you could ask would be one about McCain's honesty, one that points out the false claims you know he has been making. But Mitchell couldn't bring herself to commit such a flagrant act of journalism.
And this is an interview that has won Andrea Mitchell praise! That should tell you everything you need to know about how fundamentally broken the media are.
When Davis was done attacking Obama for not going to Landstuhl, Mitchell politely moved on -- and her next question suggested Barack Obama is just as culpable for the campaign's negative turn as John McCain is. Later, she again drew equivalence between the negativity of the two campaigns. Rather than asking John McCain's campaign manager a single question about the falsehoods she knows McCain is spreading, Mitchell instead told him that Obama is just as bad.
Finally, Mitchell asked Davis about a memo the McCain campaign distributed that mocks Barack Obama for drinking iced tea and eating protein bars for energy (no, I am not making this up). Here's how Mitchell phrased the question: "So, is that your campaign, you know, shtick right now? That he is sort of out of the mainstream, elite...?"
Now, a tough question about the McCain campaign's attempts to portray Obama as an "out of the mainstream elite" might have mentioned that we learned just this week that John McCain wears $520 shoes. Or it might have mentioned that he and his wife have somewhere around a dozen homes. Might even have mentioned that McCain and his wife would save nearly $400,000 under McCain's tax plan.
Andrea Mitchell didn't ask anything like that. Didn't give the slightest indication that it might be a tad hypocritical for the fantastically wealthy admiral's son in the $520 loafers to portray Barack Obama as an elite. Instead, she just asked if that's what the McCain campaign was doing. When Davis responded by claiming "honestly I don't think we are focusing on it. You're the one bringing it up, today," Mitchell for some reason chose not to point out that she brought it up because Rick Davis brought it up in a memo he released the day before.
Again, this is a performance for which Mitchell has been praised as one of the better examples of journalism this week.
But it's really little more than one of countless examples this week of the fact that the political media simply don't care about falsehoods and lies -- at least when they are coming from John McCain and his campaign. Sure, they'll (sometimes) note the falsehoods, as detailed above. But they don't treat the falsehoods as though they are important. They don't devote articles and television segments to McCain's growing credibility problem or to detailing the growing pattern of bogus claims. Instead, they debunk the details of McCain's claim, then proceed to accept the underlying premise and devote their segments and articles to that.
Incredibly, Mitchell's interview of Rick Davis was the second time in slightly more than two days that an MSNBC host interviewed Davis without asking him about the Landstuhl falsehood; Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski did the same thing on July 29.
Yesterday, The New York Times ran an article about McCain's "newly aggressive campaign to define Mr. Obama as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency." Ten paragraphs into the article, the Times finally got around to acknowledging -- in a secondary clause of a sentence -- that McCain's attacks have "included some assertions from the McCain campaign that have been widely dismissed as misleading." Not only was this acknowledgement buried, as though it is a trivial detail, it understated things considerably -- the assertions have been dismissed by many as false, not merely misleading. The Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article that portrayed McCain's troop snub charge as a he-said/she-said, despite the fact that separate article in that same edition of the newspaper noted -- as many others have -- that the McCain charge is false.
Instead, the media spent the bulk of the week discussing Barack Obama's purported "presumptuousness" and "arrogance" -- even though they (occasionally) acknowledged that the examples upon which the charge is based are bunk. There is simply no good reason for this.
Confronted with a situation in which Candidate A is making false claims to portray Candidate B in a negative light, logic, reason, a basic respect for truth, and an interest in quality journalism all suggest that the media should focus on Candidate A's dishonesty rather than whether Candidate B does indeed have the negative qualities Candidate A is using false claims to establish. How can that possibly be a controversial proposition?
The excuse reporters will offer is that the "narrative" is "emerging." But these narratives don't emerge on their own. They emerge because the media keep asserting them, without evidence. If the cable news shows asked every guest this week whether John McCain's repeated false claims will undermine his credibility rather than whether Barack Obama's presumptuousness will hurt him, the "emerging narrative" would be quite different.
And that's what they should be asking -- there is evidence that McCain has been making false claims. These very same news organizations know there is evidence; they have reported it. Yet they ask questions and host discussions based on the claims they know are false rather than on the truth they have reported. There is simply no valid reason for this. None.
It isn't that the "narrative" is out there -- the narrative doesn't get out there without the media putting it out there. Based, in this case, on a bunch of claims they know are false. (The "it's out there" excuse extends beyond narratives: Yesterday, MSNBC's Tamron Hall introduced yet another clip of a McCain ad -- for much of the week the cable channel has seemed to exist solely to give free air time to McCain ads so he doesn't have to spend his own money on them -- by saying "it is certainly getting a lot of attention." No, it isn't "getting" attention; there's no reason to hide behind the passive voice. MSNBC was giving it a lot of attention.)
And don't let reporters tell you they're covering the "narrative" that Obama is "arrogant" because he has a problem with being perceived that way. He doesn't (yet: a week of media focus on this garbage could change that, at which point, they'll claim credit for prescience rather than acknowledging their own role in the smear). CNN released a poll this week that asked whether people find the presidential candidates "arrogant." There was basically no difference between Obama and McCain on this question. Much of the alleged "evidence" that Obama is presumptuous applies to McCain as well. (Travels abroad? Check. Meets with foreign leaders? Check. Has slogan on campaign plane? Check.) And the public view of the two is similar. But how often do you hear the media talking about McCain's presumptuousness and arrogance? Roughly "never"? Why not?
Because the journalists responsible for coverage of political campaigns simply don't give a damn about the truth, or about balance, or about what is important and what is not. They're thrilled to spend three days talking about a substance-free attack because it amuses them that the attack used Paris Hilton's image. (Assuming John McCain is leveling the attack rather than the subject of it: Try talking about how much money Paris Hilton and John McCain will save under John McCain's tax plan, and see if you get as much attention.) And they'll enthusiastically repeat a bogus Republican attack over and over, stipulating to the premise, even if they know it's factually incorrect or illogical nonsense.
On Wednesday, MSNBC's Contessa Brewer provided an example that would be hilarious, if it weren't so horrible. Interviewing Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) about an unsubstantiated quote that had been attributed to Obama, Brewer acknowledged that there were indications that the quotation was wildly misleading -- that, in fact, Obama had said the opposite of what he was purported to have said. Jackson Lee had actually been in the room for Obama's comments and said the quotation was wrong. At which point, Brewer asked if it would have been presumptuous for Obama to have said what he didn't say. Sounds crazy, right? See for yourself:
BREWER: Do you think if he had just said -- if he had just said -- "I have become the symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions," that sentence in and of itself, do you think that that is presumptuous? Do you agree if that had been the only sentence without the context, that it would have been enough for people to think, well, who does he think he is?
If he had said it, would it be presumptuous? Well, maybe. And if John McCain announced that he is the walrus, it would be a bit strange, too. So what? There's no reason to believe he said it. But this is how low our political media have sunk: questioning members of Congress not about the Iraq war, or the economy, or executive power, but about hypothetical situations in which Barack Obama says something that there's no reason to think he said, and whether it would be presumptuous of him to make these comments. Hypothetically.
One final example -- a small one, but illustrative of the way the media behaves. Yesterday, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote:
[T]he Republican echo chamber has been sounding full tilt about Barack Obama's Jimmy Carter-esque turn as advice columnist to Americans about energy. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity spent part of their broadcast mocking Obama for urging Americans to inflate their tires to help conserve gasoline.
Ambinder doesn't address -- or even raise -- the question of why this is "an effective GOP shot," but the answer is simple: Because the media, Marc Ambinder included, treat it as such.
As Ambinder's Atlantic colleague Matthew Yglesias wrote in response:
The upshot is deemed to be ... success for the echo chamber, "an effective GOP shot." But why? Maybe the attack will be reported in a way that's helpful to Republicans. But why should it be reported that way? Why should slamming Obama for offering sound, bipartisan, industry-endorsed advice by [sic] an effective attack?
Yglesias is right, but he could have gone further by pointing out the other ways the media could cover the attack.
They could cover it by pointing out that it is a bogus attack, that Obama is right and that the GOP is either ignorant or dishonest. If they covered it that way, surely it wouldn't be an "effective GOP shot" -- it would blow up in the Republicans' faces. And why not cover it that way? Covering it that way would clearly be better journalism than simply repeating the GOP's bogus ridicule as though it has some basis in fact.
Or they could cover it the way they would probably cover it if the situation were a little different. Imagine that during the 2004 campaign, George W. Bush suggested people increase their fuel efficiency by keeping their tires properly inflated and John Kerry dismissed the idea. It isn't at all that difficult to imagine the media seizing on Kerry's dismissal as evidence that the wealthy coastal elite doesn't understand cars the way rugged Midwestern guys do, as an example of him being out of touch and incapable of relating to regular people. Honestly, is there anyone who thinks Maureen Dowd or Dana Milbank wouldn't write that column?
Well, John McCain is a very wealthy guy with $520 shoes and more homes than most men have shoes, thanks to his heiress wife. Dowd and Milbank and the rest of the media could easily respond to McCain's mockery of Obama's comments by portraying McCain as an effete aristocrat who can't relate to regular people. Such coverage would be inane -- but just the kind of coverage we saw when the candidate was John Kerry rather than John McCain.
So why is this an "effective GOP shot"? Because reporters like Marc Ambinder treat it as such rather than making clear that it is a bogus GOP shot. There's nothing inherently "effective" about an attack like this. Reporters have a choice: They can simply repeat the GOP claims, in which case the shot is effective. Or they can do their jobs and give their readers and viewers an accurate understanding of the situation, in which case the attack will be ineffective -- and, in fact, counterproductive, since it will make the attackers look ignorant or dishonest.
There's nothing magical about the criticism that makes it an "effective GOP shot" -- it is effective because reporters choose not to do their jobs. Narratives that are based on false examples don't just "take hold" -- reporters choose not to do their jobs. It's really that simple. And it isn't the difference between good journalism and bad journalism. It's the difference between journalism and something else entirely. A journalist doesn't simply repeat false claims the Republicans make. A journalist doesn't adopt the underlying premise of an attack when the evidence in support of it is false. Whatever you call the people responsible for this nonsense, don't call them journalists.