Fighting the Right Wing Smear Machines
In June of 2004, I wrote a column for The Gadflyer asking why the right wing seemed so slow in getting its machinery of anger and innuendo aimed at presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry.
"Where are the anti-Kerry books?" I asked. "The conspiracy theories? The intimations of murder and drug-running? The maniacal ravings of the unhinged Right we've come to know and love?" Before long, of course, they got their act together, and Kerry never recovered from the blizzard of lies told by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and other assorted conservative dirty tricksters.
We all know how early the 2008 presidential campaign has begun. It is nearly a year before the first primary vote will be cast, and the smear machine is already taking aim at the Democratic contenders, hoping to replicate the successes it had in torpedoing the last two Democratic nominees and hamstringing Bill Clinton's presidency.
But it isn't just the candidates that are readying themselves for a campaign that will be longer and more arduous than ever before. And what about the reporters who have so often been the right's gleeful partners? There are reasons for both hope and concern.
In their repugnant book The Way to Win, ABC News political director Mark Halperin and John Harris of The Politico (and formerly of The Washington Post ) explain that, as journalists, "Matt Drudge rules our world."
In other words, when Drudge -- a right-wing operative who closely coordinates his activities with the Republican National Committee -- puts up a sensational story on his website, Halperin, Harris and the rest of their cohorts simply have no choice but to run off and cover it, whether it is true or not.
What's that, you say? Barack Obama once killed a man in a barfight? John Edwards is a pedophile? Hillary Clinton knows where Bin Laden is, but won't say because they're lovers? Run that baby! After all, "questions are being raised."
But amazing though it may seem to observers of the gurgling sewer of deception and distraction that is our modern news media, we may need to update Mark Twain's oft-quoted quip that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. Today a lie can get all the way around the world in the time it takes a liar to click "post." The good news is that the truth will be hot on its tail.
Consider the first of what will no doubt be many false stories spread about the Democratic candidates: the lie that Barack Obama attended a fundamentalist madrassa when he lived in Indonesia as a boy. When insightmag.com, a website owned by the right-wing Washington Times, put out a breathless report trumpeting the fantasy, Fox News immediately jumped on board, as did Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of the talk radio bile spewers. "Why didn't anybody ever mention," asked "Fox & Friends" co-host Steve Doocy, a man who makes Larry King look like Oscar Wilde, "that that man right there was raised -- spent the first decade of his life, raised by his Muslim father -- as a Muslim and was educated in a madrassa?"
This sentence contained no fewer than five falsehoods: Obama wasn't raised by his father, his father left the family when Obama was two years old, his father wasn't a practicing Muslim, Obama wasn't raised as a Muslim and he didn't go to a madrassa . "Well, he didn't admit it," chimed in co-host Brian Kilmeade. "I mean, that's the issue."
But then, perhaps spurred by their more or less constant feud with Fox, CNN sent a reporter out to -- get this -- check to see if the story was true. ABC and the AP followed suit, and all reported to their audiences that what Obama had attended was nothing more than an ordinary public school. In other words, they did what journalists are supposed to do when confronted with a potentially scandalous story about a candidate: investigate before reporting it, then tell the public the facts. That those news organizations doing the right thing seems so remarkable is a testament to how debased American journalism has become.
Of course, by the end of the day there were probably many people who heard something about Obama and a madrassa , and now not only have the impression that he is a Muslim, but a Manchurian terrorist, as well. (You can read a timeline of the smear's spread.)
But among the politically aware, including journalists themselves, the story now stands as a cautionary tale. When the next Drudge-fueled myth is introduced into the media bloodstream, Democrats can say, "This is the Obama madrassa story all over again," and, if the stars align, perhaps journalists will decide to do their jobs.
After the madrassa story, it was rumored that Obama was now refusing to give interviews to Fox News in response to their appallingly irresponsible behavior.
This kind of hardball is long overdue, not because Fox itself can be shamed into exercising some journalistic responsibility (shamelessness is one of the primary employment requirements at Fox) but because it sends a message to other journalists: We will hold you accountable for your actions. If you spread lies, we'll treat you like a liar, and we don't talk to liars.
It remains to be seen if Obama and the other Democratic candidates are truly willing to hold journalists responsible for their actions. But they already know that the Republican Noise Machine will be taking aim at them. Already John Edwards was the victim of a manufactured controversy over two bloggers he hired, and whether he should have fired them because of things they had written on their blogs in recent years.
The identity of those responsible for the Edwards blogger controversy may have been clear, but they were no more credible for their names being known than the anonymous "sources" credited for insightmag.com's Obama madrassa smear.
In this case, it was conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, one of the most repellent actors on the current political scene, and William Donohue of the Catholic League, an anti-gay bigot who regularly flirts with anti-Semitism. (Among Donohue's bon mots : "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity ... Hollywood likes anal sex.")
Donohue runs an ongoing medicine show of disingenuous outrage, charging that any criticism of the Catholic Church -- if it comes from progressives or Democrats -- is "anti-Catholic bigotry," while defending all manner of bigotry so long as it comes from conservatives.
Again and again, all it has entailed is a call from Bill Donohue -- whom Mark Silk, the director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, described as "a thug" -- to set reporters' fingers tapping on their keyboards, another "controversy" made to order.
Despite there being some factual element buried deep within the story -- the two bloggers, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, were, in fact, working for John Edwards, and they had previously written strong, even intemperate words criticizing the Catholic Church -- this controversy was at its heart no different from the madrassa fiction.
Both were attempts by right-wing operatives to create a scandal out of nothing in an attempt to damage a Democratic presidential candidate; in both cases these right-wing operatives sought to enlist the help of the media to do their dirty work.
And in both cases, the liberal blogs fought back (albeit for slightly different reasons; it wasn't Edwards they were defending, but two of their own). They spread the facts, they put pressure on the media to report them accurately and they generally made the kind of ruckus the right wing has been much more effective at creating. In the end, Edwards did the right thing and refused to fire Marcotte and McEwan. Still, Donohue got the scalp he wanted: Marcotte quit the Edwards campaign this week. (You can read her explanation.)
The 2008 election will be a test of whether blogs have the power to enforce some standard of truth and shame on those news organizations that buy into made-up tales like the Obama madrassa story.
During the 2004 campaign blogs were still a novelty, an emerging information source and organizing tool with mostly unrealized potential. Four years later they have become a major player, and journalists -- terribly threatened though they may be by the idea that ordinary, uncredentialed people might be checking their work and calling them on their mistakes -- have finally realized that blogs can't be ignored. And if there's one thing bloggers don't hesitate to do, it is calling journalists to account when they have sinned.
As many a blogger has argued, they are much more accountable than traditional journalists -- write something inaccurate on your blog, and within minutes others will fact-check you and demand a correction (which on blogs is put right with the original post, not buried deeply somewhere in the publication a week later). So we can hope that that spirit of accountability will extend to the reporters currently booking hotel rooms in Des Moines and Manchester.
You don't have to let the right-wing smear machine lead you around by the nose. You can exercise your own judgment about what's true and what's a lie. You can give the public something better than what they've gotten in the last few campaigns. You can be true to your profession's noble ideals and the demands of democracy.
We'll be watching.