Reporting the Lies
Every day, my inbox fills with dozens of press releases, tips and advisories. Most of them tell of something that is already happening, or that is scheduled to happen in the near future. My involvement isn't necessary for the thing to occur. Rather, my role is to decide — and it is a decision — whether people will know about it.
Monday's Washington Post features a disheartened Howard Kurtz ruminating on the apparent impotence of the media in the face of the lies, smears and demagoguery that has afflicted the health care debate. "For once," Kurtz says, "mainstream journalists did not retreat to the studied neutrality of quoting dueling antagonists." It didn't much matter. Recent polls show that Americans believe all sorts of untruths about the health-care bills traveling through Congress. "Even when they report the facts," sighs Kurtz, "[the media] have had trouble influencing public opinion."
But before the media reported the facts, they hyped the lies. There are a lot of things the average American doesn't know about. Before Sarah Palin talked about death panels, for instance, no one knew about Sen. Johnny Isakson's quiet crusade to persuade Medicare beneficiaries to adopt living wills. It did not lead every newscast and it was not reported in every paper. This despite the fact that Isakson (R-Ga.), unlike Palin, has a vote on health-care reform.
It is true that Palin's statements eventually got fact-checked. The New York Times, in particular, spoke clearly and forcefully, albeit well after the controversy had begun dominating the coverage. But the world is full of lies. There aren't enough reporters on the planet to fact-check them all. That's okay, as most lies aren't reported. Stories about the Obamas heading to Martha's Vineyard do not have to contend with stories about a crank who thinks they're really heading to a secret rejuvenation chamber in the Himalayas.
Long before the media ever fact-checks a debate, they construct it. Piece by piece, bit by bit. There is not, however, a whole lot of substantive news on any given day, even as health-care reform remains the central issue before Congress. So they cover the controversy. They cover the lies and the untruths and the angry ads. Sometimes they fact-check these documents and sometimes they don't, but it probably doesn't much matter in the long run: For the past few weeks, the casual consumer of news has heard about death panels and illegal immigrants and skyrocketing deficits and violent town halls. They may not believe all those things. But they assume they're part of the national conversation for a reason, and, quite naturally, they recoil from the center of it.
On Thursday, Jon Stewart invited Betsy McCaughey onto the Daily Show. McCaughey is a professional liar who specializes in lying about health-care reform. Stewart wanted to embarrass her, and some even thought he did. But what he really did was secure her a forum. Viewers saw a segment asking whether health-care reform will kill their grandmothers. Maybe they agreed that Stewart effectively debunked the claims. But more likely, they wondered how good a bill could be if there literally had to be an argument over whether or not it would kill grandma.
Reporting the facts is important. But so too is not reporting — or at least not focusing, day after day — on the lies. The average voter doesn't take their cues from the fifth paragraph in our articles, the one that explains that the quote in the first paragraph isn't necessarily true. They form fuzzy impressions from the shape of the overall conversation. The occasional fact-check isn't nearly so powerful as the aggregate impression conveyed by the coverage. And even if, as Kurtz says, the media has made some admirable efforts to combat specific lies, they — we — have allowed lies and chaos to emerge as the subject of the health-care reform debate.
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