Over the next 46 days, as the candidates trade charges and counter-charges, the self-appointed media umpires will act as if they are the ultimate fact-finders in Campaign ’08. Writing for tomorrow’s National Journal, columnist Stuart Taylor says that the media’s track record thus far makes him just as skeptical of the press.
Taylor declares: “Many in the media have been one-sided, sometimes adding to Obama’s distortions rather than acting as impartial reporters of fact and referees of the mud fights.” Rather than cleaning up the record, Taylor reports several instances when the media are themselves guilty of perpetuating partisan disinformation.
Here are excerpts of Taylor's September 20 column, “Campaign Lies, Media Double Standards”:
We still have many great journalists, but I no longer trust the major newspapers or television networks to provide consistently accurate and fair reporting and analysis of all the charges and countercharges. This in an era when the noise produced by highly partisan TV hosts and blogs creates a crying need for at least one newspaper that we can count on to play it straight.
Indeed, one reason that candidates get away with dishonest campaign ads and speeches may be that it is so hard for undecided voters like me to discern which charges are true, which are exaggerated, and which are false. Most people can't spend hours every day cross-checking diverse sources of information to verify the accuracy of slanted stories and broadcasts such as these:
■ In Sarah Palin's first big media interview, on September 11, Charlie Gibson of ABC News asked: "You said recently, in your old church, 'Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.' Are we fighting a holy war?" Palin responded: "You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote." Gibson pressed: "Exact words."
Viewers had no way of knowing that, in fact, Gibson was distorting Palin's meaning by leaving out critical context and thus making an unremarkable exhortation to prayer sound like a declaration of holy war. Palin had not said that the war was a task from God. She had urged her listeners to "pray" that it was a task from God. A September 3 Associated Press report by Gene Johnson distorted Palin's meaning in exactly the same way.
■ A front-page story in the September 12 Washington Post, by Anne Kornblut, was headlined: "Palin Links Iraq to Sept. 11 in Talk to Troops in Alaska." This was misleading, as were the first two paragraphs. They implied that Palin had advanced the long-discredited "idea that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein helped Al Qaeda plan the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon." In fact, Palin's reasonably clear meaning was not that Saddam had a role in the 9/11 attacks but that (as the article backhandedly acknowledged) the troops would be fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is related to the group that launched the 9/11 attacks....
I was deeply dismayed by the 72-year-old McCain's reckless choice of the inexperienced and untested Palin to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. But I am also deeply skeptical when I see front-page headlines like "As Mayor of Wasilla, Palin Cut Own Duties, Left Trail of Bad Blood" (Washington Post, September 14), or "Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes" (New York Times, same day). Such loaded language is a badge not of a newsroom committed to impartial investigation but of an ideological echo chamber.
Many media commentators also exude a conviction that Republicans have long played dirtier and more dishonest political hardball than do Democrats. Maybe, but I'm not so sure. We are often reminded of Republican sins ranging from the (accurate) Willie Horton ads of 1988 to the (over-the-top) "Swiftboating" of 2004. We hear a lot less about Democratic sins such as President Clinton's distortions of Bob Dole's position on Medicare in 1996 and the NAACP's stunningly scurrilous ad campaign in 2000 associating George W. Bush's opposition to a hate crimes bill with the racist murderers who dragged James Byrd behind a truck.