Media

Punish the Right-Wing Liars

If the right-wing media keeps spreading lies like the one about Barack Obama supposedly going to a madrassa as a child, it's time to consider hiring the meanest lawyers on the planet to fight these creeps.
"Are the American people ready for an elected president who was educated in a madrassa as a young boy and has not been forthcoming about his Muslim heritage?" -- From Hannity.com, long after the "madrassa" story had been debunked

Nearly two years before the next presidential election, we've already set the tone: Even the most outrageous media fictions about candidates are apparently going to go unpunished.

At least that was my thought, after watching last week's unfolding of the Obama-madrassa scandal -- the unofficial starting gun for the Great Slime Race, as the 2008 presidential campaign will someday be known. I found the entire affair puzzling. I know for sure that if I made a journalistic "mistake" of that magnitude, I'd be spending the rest of my life picking strawberries in the Siberian tundra. Most print journalists I know would expect the same thing; the legal ramifications alone of intentionally going to print with a story that missed by that much would guarantee that 80 cents out of every dollar you made for the next ten years would go to the victim of your libel. That's unless you're Tom Friedman and you can use congenital idiocy as a defense in court.

For some reason, however, we never see full-blown libel suits in high-level political journalism. Moreover, there appears to be a completely different standard for talk-radio and TV talk-show hosts, who are somehow allowed to lie and fuck up with impunity, and still remain employed. I get the feeling that as a society we have decided to give a collective pass to serial media swindlers like Sean Hannity simply because we never expect them to actually document the "facts" that come spewing in mass volumes out of their zoster-covered mouths every day. We actually expect them to pull most of their material out of their asses, and are mostly content to address the problem by pompously correcting their errata post-factum in whiny media-crit outlets like...well, like this one. Actual real punishment never seems to be forthcoming.

The Obama incident was a perfect example. After Fox outlets, Insight magazine and the Roger Ailes morning vehicle Fox and Friends erroneously reported that a source in "Hillary Clinton's camp" had uncovered that Barack Obama had been schooled in a "madrassa" in his youth in Indonesia, CNN dispatched a reporter to the school in question and found that the tale was totally false, that there were religion classes only once a week at the school and that the school had not even a hint of Wahabbite influence. Moreover, Hillary Clinton's camp denied having anything to do with the story. "They made it up," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said.

Fox responded with a classic "Eat me you clowns!" send-off, with Fox anchor John Gibson bitching that John Vause, the CNN reporter who blew up their report, "probably went to the very [same] madrassa." Ultimately there was a reluctant "retraction" of sorts on Fox and Friends, but if you pay careful attention, the statement read by Fox anchor Steve Doocy isn't a retraction at all. Here's what he said:
Doocy: : One other thing. We want to clarify something: On Friday of last week, we did the story from Insight magazine where we talked about how they were quoting that Barack Obama, when he was a child growing up in Indonesia, had attended a madrassa. Well, Mr. Obama's people called and they said that that is absolutely false. They said the idea that Barack Obama went to a radical Muslim school is completely ridiculous. In his book it does say that he went to a mostly Muslim school but not to a madrassa.
Obviously there is absolutely no admission of error here; they only concede that Barack Obama himself claims the story is false, which is what most people expect a politician to do even after a true expose. Doocy read his text with the tone of a junior-high bully wiseass ripping off a school-mandated "apology" in front of the class; his tone clearly indicated that he, and Fox, were greatly annoyed by the inconvenience of having to "clarify" anything for anyone.

Not only that, but well after the story had been crushed by every reputable news outlet in America, the Fox-affiliated Hannity continued to have the Insight story up, uncorrected, on the front page of his website. It's still there now, lingering like a hemorrhoid, as I write this piece.

I'm not sure if people realize exactly how serious a situation this is. The way our national media is currently constructed, a lie of this magnitude broadcast on a major network becomes an irreversible blow within, I would guess, about 24 hours after it appears. There are rare cases of an unsourced hoax blowing up quickly enough that it won't stick to a politician -- the John Kerry mistress story is a good example -- but for the most part, once the lie is out there, it's there to stay. This is especially true given the nature of the audience for outlets like Fox and Hannity. Unless you force a Hannity or a John Gibson to apologize by ripping his own still-beating heart out on national television, their audiences will assume that any "retraction" comes with a grain of salt, that the original report was true.

Years after George Bush himself admitted that there is no link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, I continue to meet people who believe just the opposite -- that the original implications furthered by the White House and the talk-radio preachers were true, and that the no-link concession was something somehow forced on Bush and the likes of Fox by hyper-cautious media lawyers and lefty journalists who, it is assumed, harbor some secret allegiance to Saddam Hussein and/or the cause of Islamic terrorism in general.

This unwillingness to believe the "reputable" media outlets' final judgments about such controversies is now endemic and a result of a number of factors, most of those having to do with the failure of the mainstream media to perform vigilantly in the face of various bald national deceptions.

After the debacle of 2000, for instance, many people automatically distrust the published verdicts about election results, choosing to assume that votes were stolen by one side or the other and that the commercial media is a fellow-traveler tied to whichever side you choose to think is rigging the game -- Republicans or Democrats, both sides are regularly suspected. And though few people probably register the issue consciously, there has to be some kind of fallout when the population is fed "They hate us for our freedom" by "reputable" media outlets as an explanation for the 9/11 attacks. When the media trades so blatantly in such egregious, transparent bullshit, why shouldn't their audiences choose to make their own decisions about truth and untruth?

The lesson of all this -- and of the Iraq war, the Swift Boat controversy, and indeed the whole careers of swine like Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and the like -- is that unless you prevent the lie from coming out to begin with, it doesn't really matter what happens afterward. In the Internet age, and with no kind of regulation of the "facts" that are circulated on afternoon radio, once that genie is out of the bottle, he's staying out.

Moreover, we live in an age in which an increasing number of unscrupulous media creatures make phony/misleading rhetorical arguments and cover themselves by "citing" media reports that may be still floating around on the internet, long after they've been debunked. Rush Limbaugh is the master of this technique. A classic Limbaugh news-reference involved a mountain-lion attack in Colorado (hyping alleged liberal overconcern for deadly mountain lions is a surprisingly hardy staple of right-wing radio entertainment); Limbaugh wanted to argue that PC-mad animal rights activists had raised more money for the lion cub than had been raised for the victim's family. "As of May 23, the orphaned mountain lion had received $21,000 in donations and Barbara Schoener's two kids had received around $9,000," was how Rush put it, way back in 1994. The story was total bullshit and had been exposed as such for more than a month at the time Rush came out with that story.

And once he realized he could do this without suffering consequences, he just kept on doing it, which is why his listeners over the years have been treated to such nuggets of wisdom as "There's no such thing as an implied contract," "It has not been proven that nicotine is addictive," "The condom failure rate can be as high as 20 percent," "The poorest people in America are better off than the mainstream families of Europe," "Banks take the risks in insuring student loans," "Anita Hill followed Clarence Thomas everywhere," and "$14,400 for a family of four-- that's not so bad." There are endless lists of these casually-told lies that stick long after debunking -- anyone interested in seeing the full list can check out sites like fair.org.

Now we're seeing the same thing with the Obama story; it is lingering, even after it has been totally discredited. Emboldened by a generation that has refused to punish their libelous behavior, these guys now just take whatever "facts" they like and run with them. Hannity is one culprit. Michael Savage, a spineless little fuckhead who should be torn apart by hyenas, responded to the debunking of the Obama story by telling his listeners that Obama "will not reply" to the original Insight report, a blatant lie. He added, for good measure, that "assuming the world is still here" after a Clinton-Obama administration, Obama would then run for president with "Saddam Hussein's younger grandson" as his running mate.

The very fact that the liars are allowed to continue their trade unpunished is a sort of endorsement of their original versions of the "truth." I have absolutely no doubt that many Americans believe deep down in their gullible hearts that if people like Hannity and Limbaugh were really liars, they would be pulled off the air, or punished for some reason. They see that a Michael Savage can be yanked from a lucrative job for gay-bashing, but there appears to be no punishment at all for unchecked, intentional lying, which is at least as serious an offense for a journalist.

The results of widespread public disenfranchisement with the media are already out in the open for everyone to see -- wild conspiracy theories running rampant on both sides of the political aisle, great masses of the population eschewing reporting and appealing to Biblical interpretations of world events, and the explosion of a blogger movement that on the one hand has greatly enhanced press freedom, but on the other has inspired "mainstream" media organs to dispense with traditional fact-checking procedures in a desperate attempt to compete with the speed of the Internet and cable news. The direction all of this is traveling in is a future of pure informational mayhem, in which people will have absolutely no reliable means to make political decisions, leaving the political landscape ripe to be seized by demagogues and swindlers of all stripes, the public with no defense against political and environmental corruption, etc.

If the press is serious about saving itself as a social institution, it has to start policing its own business. We all have to encourage the likes of Barack Obama to hire the meanest lawyers on the planet and to file the hairiest lawsuits imaginable against the Hannitys, Gibsons, and Savages of the world. We have to impress upon the victims of these broadsides that choosing to ignore that style of libel is a betrayal of the public trust and an act of political cowardice that the rest of us end up paying for in spades. That's the ugly truth: Until one of those monsters goes down in a fireball of punitive litigation, we are all fucked. And it's not going to happen anytime soon.
Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone.