Matthew Yglesias has what seems to be a relatively easy and straightforward way
to eliminate a lot of dishonesty in political campaigns:
There is one and only one way that America can start to have a serious political debate. That is for the result of Candidate A making a false claim about Candidate B to generate the headline: "A Makes False Charges About B" and a lede like, "Speaking before an audience of supporters in Ohio yesterday, Candidate A said some things about Candidate B that were not true. 'Blah blah,' said B, which was false." The current practice of putting the charge in the headline and the lede, then explicating the charge for a few graphs, then providing contrary information in the next few graphs without expressing a judgment about who's right, and then spending the rest of the article speculating on whether or not the charges will be effective is a completely unacceptable incentivation of bullshit and the trivialization of American politics.
Obviously, everything he says is exactly right, and the sort of thing that smart people of any political bent ought to be able to endorse. The impracticality of Matthew's prescription is that it cuts against the two most important media biases, which, as I keep saying, are towards laziness and sensationalism.
Let's go in reverse order. "Candidate A Lied" is a fairly attention-grabbing headline, but likely not quite so much as "Candidate B Did Blah Blah Blah." How can I be sure? Because in order for an accusation to merit a "Candidate A Lied"-type headline, the substance of "blah blah blah" is going to have to be fairly heavy stuff. No one is going to write an article about how Candidate A lied when he claimed that his opponent would raise taxes on the top 1% of income earners, when in fact his opponent had merely proposed raising taxes on the top 0.9%. It's just not interesting. Moreover, every newspaper and press outlet has its own political biases which, though usually less pronounced than the primary biases of laziness and sensationalism, influence their perceptions of just what is sensational. So, to take an obviously germane example, for every article that the Washington Post
and New York Times
print questioning the veracity of the SBVF"T" claims, the Washington Times
and the New York Post
will print at least several tabloid style articles in which the possibility that the SBVF"T" are liars is essentially buried. And the issue can be approached from another angle as well; the Washington Post
and New York Times
each have their fair share of reporters who accept the premise, at least to some degree, that anything a candidate says is
news. So, finally, while there are countervailing forces arguing that sensationalism would best be served by writing about false accusations rather than the substance of those accusations, the scales are ultimately weighted in favor of headlines and ledes presenting smears as news and only bothering to investigate them beyond the point at which average readers stop paying attention.
But the real reason that Matthew's proposal is depressingly unlikely to take effect is the laziness factor. In order to be able to report that an accusation is false, a reporter not only has to do some real investigation, but has to perform some analytic mental labors, to assign probabilities to the various possible versions of events, to draw conclusions---in short, to think
. It's not going to happen. There is absolutely no incentive for him to do so, and it is only a minority of journalists who would feel duty-bound to uncover the fraudlence of a charge before doing any reporting on it. And those points are only relevant to print journalism. Is any 24-hour news channel ever going to bother to report that "Candidate X's charge is false" before reporting that "some say Candidate Y did blah blah blah."? Please. Apropos of that last point, let's also keep in mind that a lot of the phony attacks---and all the truly baseless, wild, and injurious ones---are promulgated by surrogates, allowing individual candidates to maintain a respectability and plausible distance. (This is, of course, precisely the dilemma that the Kerry campaign faces now.) The average reporter is unwilling to do the mental work to expose the falsity of a candidate's charge in his headline or lede; what are the odds that he would do the further work of investigating an "independent group" and drawing its connections to a particular campaign? (Yes I'm aware of the Times
piece. It was an adumbration of previously written material.)
There's a third bias worth mentioning, which is the one directly related to political biases. Matthew has been very insightful recently in pointing out what he calls the "hack gap," namely the alternative approaches liberal and conservative journalists take to their craft. In very general terms, a liberal journalist is a journalist first and a liberal, let alone a Democrat, much later. As such, he usually feels bound by the ethics of his profession to present the other side's case as fairly as possible. And he will usually not publish stories he knows to be untrue (and I'm not talking here about sociopaths like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass). But the liberal reporter is accutely conscious of the perception of liberal bias in the media, and will often try to compensate by treating plainly bogus conservative memes neutrally, and thereby legitimizing them.
The conservative journalist, on the other hand (and again, these are generalities), is either a conservative or a Republican first, and only a journalist third. (Yes, I'm aware of the exceptions.) Michelle Malkin, on Hardball the other day, insinuated something to the effect that there are rumors that John Kerry deliberately shot himself to get out of Vietnam. Of course, the origins of these rumors are people like Malkin saying that such rumors exist. But it doesn't matter to her. Anything that might hurt the Democratic candidate is worth talking about. Most liberal journalists and reporters just wouldn't do that. The net result is that accusations about liberals and Democrats tend to be aired out under a mutually agreed-upon notion of objectivity. Accusations about conservatives and Republicans, by contrast, tend to be both presented and carefully scrutinized by one side, and utterly derided by the other (and offered as evidence of media bias).
I'm not, by the way, pretending that this phenomenon couldn't cut the other way. The position of a number of liberal editorialists on Michael Moore, namely that we know he's full of shit but so what because he might help unseat Bush, is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. But the Republican party, at least over the last 20 or 30 years, has gotten incredibly good at managing propaganda, producing raft-fulls of hacks posing as journalists who have to be given equal time (because otherwise the media are biased), and holding the vast majority of conservative reporters and commentators to its party line. It's not a coincidence that one constantly hears right-wing talk show hosts repeating RNC talking points almost verbatim. There's no secret conspiracy---vast or right or winged or otherwise---behind this; just a shared worldview and a willingness by the right to present a front that tolerates no apostasy. Most of these characters are only called "journalists" by that word's gradual debasement. But it no longer matters. They've been effectively mainstreamed.
The way to fight these phenomena---and let there be no mistake, they are self-sustaining---is not for the left to try to close the hack gap by producing its own hacks. That would only make the problem worse. Liberal journalists, instead, have to start doing just what Matthew says, making the dishonesty of the right the primary story, rather than a buried addendum. But such a transformation would require a prior transformation of the ethics underlying journalism. And for that, it may already by too late.