How the media made this summer's political insanity inevitable

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

The most striking aspect of this summer's political insanity isn't the frothing at the mouth of a loud minority of Republicans that President Obama is a secret Kenyan bent on subjecting an unwitting American public to government death panels, or the mass confusion among the rest of the public about health care reform. It's that any reporter who has been paying the slightest bit of attention is surprised by any of this. It is, after all, the inevitable result of the way the media do their jobs.

The most striking aspect of this summer's political insanity isn't the frothing at the mouth of a loud minority of Republicans that President Obama is a secret Kenyan bent on subjecting an unwitting American public to government death panels, or the mass confusion among the rest of the public about health care reform.

It's that any reporter who has been paying the slightest bit of attention is surprised by any of this. It is, after all, the inevitable result of the way the media do their jobs.

Let's start with the 'round-the-bend howling about Obama's place of birth, which reached a fever pitch a few weeks ago. There was no basis for it -- Obama was born in Hawaii, as government documents, the state of Hawaii (including its Republican governor), and contemporaneous newspaper accounts confirm. Because there is no basis for it, many reporters are shocked that right-wing activists, with the help of some in the media, promoted the nutty and false claim that Obama was secretly born in Kenya, and that many Americans fell for the phony conspiracy theory.

Why on earth would anyone be surprised by this? The last time America had a Democratic president, right-wing activists, with the help of some in the media, said he was responsible for the murder of his close friend and aide, Vince Foster -- and dozens of other murders, too. Why would anyone think that people who are willing to baselessly and falsely accuse one president of murder, drug smuggling, and an assortment of other crimes be unwilling to claim that the current president was born in Kenya?

You'd have to be hopelessly naive to think that people who spent years calling President Clinton a murderer wouldn't dare demand that President Obama produce a birth certificate. Or that people who believed one president was a murderer never would believe another was born abroad.

Ah, but maybe reporters are just surprised that the birthers were egged on by some congressional Republicans? They shouldn't be. Dan Burton, the Republican congressman who chaired the Government Reform & Oversight Committee, shot up a melon in his backyard in order to "prove" that Vince Foster was murdered. We're supposed to be surprised that some members of Congress are trying to capitalize on the birther conspiracy theories? Come on. Be serious.

President Clinton's opponents accomplished three things with their nasty and false claims that he was a drug-running murderer: They angered and energized millions of Americans who didn't like Clinton, created doubt and confusion among millions more, and hijacked control of the national dialogue (due in large part to the media's inability to resist shiny objects and their weakness at making clear what is true and what is false.) Why wouldn't they try to do the same to President Obama?

And the barrage of health care lies, and accompanying mass confusion about the most basic facts? MSNBC has spent much of the past week, if not longer, expressing shock at the lies and their effectiveness.

Have these people been asleep, Rip Van Winkle-style, for the past few decades? Conservatives buried the last serious effort at universal health care under an avalanche of (media-abetted) lies. And they won the 2000 election on the strength of (media-abetted ... and sometimes media-invented) lies. And they took us to war in Iraq based on (media-abetted) lies. And ... well, you get the point. When was the last time conservatives approached a big fight without relying heavily, if not exclusively, on misinformation and deception? Why would anyone have thought this time would be different?

Likewise, the increasingly obvious fact that conservatives aren't actually interested in working toward bipartisan reform -- this seems to have taken reporters by surprise. But when was the last time conservatives made significant concessions in order to win bipartisan support for anything?

What makes all this shock really amazing is that so much of political journalism consists of pontification by people who have supposedly been around and understand how things work -- and yet they're constantly stunned when history repeats itself in the most predictable of ways.

And the latest realization that has so many reporters flabbergasted: the misinformation has worked! People believe falsehoods about health care! Many people don't even know basic facts about the current system!

Gee, you don't say? Many people don't know the basic facts about anything. That's one of the basic facts of American democracy. And when people are repeatedly told things that aren't true by people they trust, they tend to believe those things. That's one of the basic facts of ... people.

Surely reporters -- whose jobs, after all, involve communicating with the public -- are aware of these basic facts of life? Surely they've heard the expression about a lie making it halfway around the world before the truth has time to get its boots on? So why are they so surprised? Particularly when they've spent the bulk of the health care debate talking about politics and polls and chattering endlessly about who is "winning the message war" rather than repeatedly and clearly explaining to viewers the facts about health care.

Just look at the way much of the media have reacted to the belated realization that the public is woefully misinformed: By speculating -- sorry, "analyzing" -- why this is the case, and guessing -- sorry, "analyzing" -- whether the White House can develop a "message" that "works." And what aren't they doing in reaction to this realization? Clearly and repeatedly explaining the facts. And they're surprised people don't know the truth. Unbelievable.

In fact, it is the media's behavior that has made this summer's madness inevitable. When they let the loudest yellers and most audacious liars drive the discourse, they guarantee that people who can't win on the merits will yell and lie. When they focus on politics rather than policy, they guarantee the public will remain in the dark about basic facts. When they repeat false claims, or treat them as he-said, she-said situations, they guarantee that those false claims will sway confused citizens. When they continue to give a platform to people who have a history of lying -- and assume those people are telling the truth this time -- they guarantee those people will continue to lie.

As long as the media approach their jobs this way, we're going to see the same thing play out over and over again. And each time, the media will be shocked -- shocked -- that some people lie, and other people believe lies.

Or they could do things differently: They could set aside the punditry and the "analysis" and the polls and the freak show and dedicate themselves to explaining the facts about health care. And explaining the facts means more than calling a lie a lie -- though that is hugely important. It also means proactively telling people how the health care system works, and what the proposed reforms are, how they would work, and what the likely effects would be.

If they won't do that, at least they could stop telling us how shocked they are at the inevitable results of their behavior. It's getting old.

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.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.