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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Why The Media Game Is Rigged

by dday

We're finally getting around in the larger blogosphere to something I was flogging a few weeks ago - how the media is failing to apply the same standard to John McCain that they did to Al Gore in 2000.

It's completely clear that the McCain campaign is outright lying about Sarah Palin's opposition to the bridge to nowhere. It's almost comical how many news stories have debunked it (here's a pretty thorough list). And the Obama campaign is not being passive about it, either. Not in any way.

On the same day that dozens of news organizations have exposed Governor Palin's phony Bridge to Nowhere claim as a 'naked lie,' she and John McCain continue to repeat the claim in their stump speeches. Maybe tomorrow she'll tell us she sold it on eBay," said Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor.

And this is only one of a host of lies that McCain and Palin have uttered on the stump and in interviews. McCain, who has abandoned virtually every "maverick" instinct he's ever had, just yesterday blasted Obama for wanting to cancel a weapons system that he himself opposed just a few years ago. This has happened multiple times and it's not going to stop. In fact, Palin is STILL saying that she opposed the bridge to nowhere on the campaign trail. She's lied about it at least 23 times.

It's not going to stop because the media has not exacted a price for all the lying. They haven't built a "serial liar" narrative around John McCain the way they did around Al Gore, despite there being far more cause for one in this case. This is what Matt Yglesias was getting at yesterday with Marc Ambinder's blithely ignorant post wondering why the electorate doesn't penalize campaigns for lying. Yglesias correctly stated that the media doesn't penalize the campaigns, so why should the electorate, who's getting their cues from that same media? One-off stories debunking the lies are nice, but an overall narrative - which does exist - is the only thing that would do the trick in this case. In response, Ambinder said this:

...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, [...] To move to a Greenwaldian debate about the duties, obligations and frustrations of the press -- well -- read elsewhere if you want to play that game. I'll abstain.

Ambinder is playing the conventional journalist's game of failing to recognize that the media is part of the story of campaigns. It's inescapable that they are the filter through which candidates must get out their message. And the hands-off approach they take, their unwillingness to referee on the side of the truth, hurts America.

If everyone got a newspaper once a day, and there were eight political stories, and all of them were different each day, and one of them had pointed out that Palin actually did support the Bridge to Nowhere, then the press would indeed have done its job. The job was to report the story, and they reported it.

But cable news and blogs and radio sort of changed all that and now there's too much information, and so consumers largely rely on the press to arrange that information into some sort of coherent story that will allow them to understand the election. And the press assumed that role -- they didn't create some new institution, or demand that the cable channels be credentialed differently and understood as "political entertainment."

They fill this new role through the methods storytellers have always used to tell stories: the repetition of certain key themes and characters, which creates continuity between one day's events and the next and helps the audience understand which parts to pay attention to [...] This requires deciding what matters. And on this, people have different opinions. Take the Bridge to Nowhere, which Ambinder mentions in his post. I think it's important that one of the central arguments the McCain campaign is making for Palin is a lie. I think that should be reported a lot, at least as often as the McCain campaign repeats it, and then if the McCain campaign doesn't stop repeating it, their lying should be emphasized a lot, because that's also important. On the level of first order principles, I know the press agrees with me, because they did this with John Kerry. The crucial problem in this discussion comes here: The press isn't allow to admit that they construct these narratives at all, and so can't transparently justify why they choose to use one and not another. Which creates mistrust and anger.

In a similar way, the press can't report that their corporate overseers play a significant role in shaping the news that we see. If you don't believe that, look at the MSNBC situation from yesterday. It's a cable network with a corporate parent that has found a niche generating cable news with a nominally liberal perspective, but it conflicts with the perceived rights and repsonsibilities of the corporate parent, so they must act against their financial interest and squash the nominal liberal perspective.

So they tie their own hands about a fundamental part of the campaign, something that really shapes public opinion on a variety of subjects. It really comes down to whether or not the grand poohbahs of the chattering class like the candidate. Glenn Greenwald weighs in on this.

It isn't particularly surprising that journalists view debates over their "duties and obligations" as sanctimonious, worthless, boring irritants -- a frivolous little "game" that is the last thing they're going to indulge. After all, they have campaign planes to catch, Steve Schmidt gossip to be dished along, petty scoops to uncover, and the daily drama of the election to be dissected. They're not going to be sidetracked from those fun and exciting pursuits by haughty objections from interlopers about the destructive role they're playing in our elections, or by ponderous debates from non-members about their so-called "obligations" to scrutinize candidates' claims and expose the falsehoods of political leaders. Please.

I do think that Democratic operatives embedded in the media, what few there are, have started to catch on to this, and maybe a constant haranguing can bring us to some kind of reckoning. Paul Begala does a good job here.

ROBERTS: That would appear, Paul, to end any argument over whether or not she supported the bridge initially. But why can't Barack Obama make that point stick?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Because the press won't do its job, John. I criticized Barack Obama when he hasn't been tough enough. Barack's job is to run against John McCain, right. Don't shoot the monkey when you can shoot for the organ grinder. His job is not to focus on number two but number one. But it is the media's job when a politician flat out lies like she's doing on this bridge to nowhere so call her on it. Or this matter of earmarks where she's attacking Barack Obama for having earmarks, when she was the mayor of little Wasilla, Alaska, 6,000 people, she hired a lobbyist who was connected to Jack Abramoff, who is a criminal and they brought home $27 million in earmarks. She carried so much pork home she got trichinosis. But we in the media are letting her tell lies about her record.

ROBERTS: Hey, OK. We got to let Alex respond to that. Flat out lies, Alex?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Let's be a little gentle. Look, every elected official in this country works under the system we have, which is you try to get a little bit of your tax money back. You just don't want to leave it all in Washington. The amazing thing about Sarah Palin is when she became governor she actually stood up and said no. And she made it -

BEGALA: That's not true.

CASTELLANOS: She took a strong stand. That is rare and that never happened.

ROBERTS: All right.

BEGALA: That's just not true. You know, John, the facts matter. There's lots of things that are debatable who is more qualified or less experienced or more this or more passionate, whatever. It is a fact that she campaigned and supported that bridge to nowhere. It is a fact that she hired lobbyists to get earmarks. It is a fact that as governor she lobbies for earmarks. Her state is essentially a welfare state taking money from the federal government.

ROBERTS: We still have 56 days to talk about this back and forth.

BEGALA: This is the problem. We have this false debate when we ought to have at least agreed upon facts.

There is going to be a lot of resistance to this. The Village establishment couldn't dare see themselves as biased arbiters and swayers of public opinion. They're just going to have to be called out. Repeatedly.