Friday, September 12, 2008

Lipstick on the press

The national news media, especially the cable and broadcast news media, might as well go ahead and put big "tool" stickers on their foreheads for the duration of the presidential election. Their complicity and delight in helping divert the American public from substantive issues has been evident throughout the primary season this past year, and -- despite the extraordinary stakes in this election -- it continues apace.

The latest and perhaps most egregious example is giving credence to the McCain campaign's objectively bogus claim that Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a pig the other day when Obama repeated a cliche he's often used ("You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig") when discussing McCain's economic policy. Obama was clearly referring to economics and had not even brought up Palin so far in his remarks when he used the refrain -- one that McCain has also used this year in criticizing Democratic policies. But the McCain people are smart enough to know that, since Sarah Palin recently brought up lipstick to distinguish hockey moms from pit bulls, they could then accuse Obama of sexism and tie up a couple of news cycles.

News outlets like CNN took up this cause, despite knowing, and generally pointing out, that the McCain campaign's claim was fabricated. It doesn't seem to occur to these reporters and producers that when they go ahead and lead news programs with bogus claims, they lend support to those claims and give aid and comfort to their progenitors. See my previous post on research showing that repeating a lie further embeds it in people's heads, even if you prove the lie to be false.

The extraordinary thing is that, even as self-proclaimed journalists wallow in this incendiary crap -- to the exclusion of delving into actual health, tax and national security policy in any meaningful way -- they pretend that they're just along for the ride and have no choice but to cooperate. Watch how CNN Deputy Political Director Paul Steinhauser introduces the "lipstick on a pig" hoax by saying, "This is what they're arguing about today ... Can you believe it?"

As Obama explains in the clip, he wasn't arguing about lipstick -- he was arguing about economic policy. He had to talk about lipstick the next day because the McCain campaign made up a ludicrous charge and the news stations all started repeating it.

What if these journalists did their jobs, evaluated the truth or falsity of stories BEFORE airing them, and stopped being boxing gloves for whichever campaign is smart enough to distract and delude them from their real responsibilities?

Fortunately, there is some deeper reporting that is bothering to call out the McCain campaign for its carefully crafted and expertly deployed low blows in this election, despite the danger of being called partisan for doing so. Here's an AP analysis, for example.

I need to disclose here that I'm supporting the Obama campaign. I'm not presently affiliated with a news organization. I believe the fate of our democratic republic -- which has been under assault from within as well as without in the past eight years -- rides on the outcome of this election. This is not a partisan belief. It is based on my understanding of the Constitution and of the role that both the people and the press play in deciding the future of our country. If John McCain and his supporters want to convince the American public that they truly have a better plan for restoring this country's strength, security, global leadership and economic stability, let them do it. Let the news media hold McCain and Obama accountable for their records and ideas. Let all the candidates submit to tough questioning from fair-minded reporters, and let the best ideas and leaders emerge.

In the meantime, if this is the best the national political media can do for our country, we might as well consign the very idea of a democracy guided by an informed public to the dust bin of history.