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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A game without referees

By Anonymous Liberal

Yesterday I observed that "[t]he reason the John Cornyns and Bill Frists of the world are so sure [Feingold's censure resolution] will backfire on the Democrats is because they know the Democratic party, true to form, will not stand together. They're confident they can bluff their way into another disjointed, fractured vote." This is true, but there is another factor that contributes to their confidence, one that is not the fault of the Democratic party.

The other day Glenn highlighted a particularly outrageous quote from White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who--in responding to Sen. Feingold's resolution--said: "I think it does raise the question, how do you fight and win the war on terrorism? And if Democrats want to argue that we shouldn't be listening to al Qaeda communications, it's their right and we welcome the debate. We are a nation at war." This quote was included, without comment, in a Reuters article that was picked up by numerous publications. It also found its way into an article in the USA Today, the nation's most widely-read newspaper. Why is this important? Well, as Glenn points out:

This is not advocacy. This is just lying. No Democrats are advocating that we not listen to Al Qaeda communications, and Scott McClellan knows that. And no journalist ought to pass along this falsehood without pointing out that it is factually false.

What Glenn puts his finger on here is the X factor in modern politics: the sorry state of modern political reporting. The problem, as many others have pointed out before me, is that political reporters at all the major news outlets (except, of course, Fox News) rigidly adhere to what has become a painfully formulaic "balanced narrative" style of journalism. All issues are presented in a 'Republicans say X, Democrats say Y' format. This is true even when X or Y is patently absurd, or when anyone of even moderate intelligence can see right through the claims being made by one side or the other.

Journalists today are more like play-by-play announcers than referees. They no longer see it as their job to step in and call fouls, i.e., to call a lie a lie. As a result, modern politics operates more or less on the honor system, which, needless to say, only invites the dishonest and unscrupulous to make a mockery of our political discourse. When all that readers are presented with is dueling narratives, suddenly even the facts are up for grabs; the very concept of objective truth becomes increasingly elusive.

This is why Republicans believe they can frame the NSA controversy as a story about Democratic opposition to the surveillance of terrorists. They know that even blatant lies like McClellan's will be repeated by the mainstream press and, at worst, balanced by a competing quote from a leading Democrat. They know that the national media no longer has any interest in refereeing these political debates. They're content to sit back and do the play-by-play.

How did things come to be like this? Well, over the last two decades, the Republican political machine has engaged in a relentless and systematic assault on all of the institutions in our society that have traditionally served as checks on excessive partisanship. They have attacked the press, the judiciary, academia, even the very concepts of science and empiricism. Their goal has been to discredit and disable the referees, to politicize, marginalize, and co-opt any and all non-political institutions, and thereby eliminate any meaningful policing of political debate.

And they have been remarkably successful. In a relatively short period of time, conservatives have managed to convince a large segment of the population that the media, the judiciary, and even science itself cannot be trusted (often with an assist from these institutions themselves). Beyond damaging the credibility of these institutions in the eyes of many Americans, this withering assault has actually transformed the institutions themselves.

Fear of the "liberal bias" charge has effectively emasculated much of the press corps. The federal judiciary has been disproportionately stacked with conservatives and Federalist Society-types, and Republicans have repeatedly attempted to bully and intimidate the judiciary as a whole. Even our scientific and empirical knowledge has been diluted and corrupted by the spread of pseudo-science and ideologically-driven research. We've reached a point where nearly all truth is politicized. The line separating facts from spin has been hopelessly blurred, and political debate has, all too often, become a joke.

The ability of the national media (and other institutions) to act as effective referees of political discourse has been further eroded by the advent of alternative media outlets like the internet, talk radio, and cable television. As I noted in a recent post, for a talking point to gain traction and attain an aura of reasonability, it has to be repeated by a sufficient number of people, a critical mass.

In the old days, the establishment media had a virtual monopoly on political journalists and talking heads. This made it easier for the media to serve as a referee and to prevent the dissemination of patently false talking points. In the era of alternative media, however, talking points can be circulated and gain some (modest) traction without any assistance from the traditional media. And when a story gains momentum in this alternative sphere, the mainstream media outlets often feel obliged to "cover the controversy" and, in doing so, give added publicity to what are often meritless claims or spurious allegations.

Indeed, it is through this very process that conservatives introduced their most powerful idea: that the mainstream media has a consistently liberal bias. "Liberal bias" quickly became the rallying cry of the new conservative alternative media, and before long it gained significant traction. Reacting to this pressure, the mainstream media fundamentally changed the way it reported political news. Reporters were suddenly hesitant to discredit even the most bogus of conservative claims for fear of being accused of bias. This has led to an almost religious adherence to a reporting style in which accuracy is routinely sacrificed in the name of "balance," and neutrality is valued above even truth.

The Karl Roves and Scott McClellans of the world can count on almost any talking point, no matter how ludicrous, being presented to the public in a dueling narrative format--free from any independent editorial judgment. And the beauty of this strategy for conservatives is that it is self-reinforcing: the more conservatives yell "liberal bias," the more rigid the balanced format becomes.

Now, don't get me wrong; balance and neutrality are important to political reporting, particularly in a two party system like our own. But they should always be subordinate to truth.

When either side says something that is demonstrably false, journalists have an obligation to point this out and not simply leave their readers to sort through the mess on their own. The only way people are going to know which side is telling the truth is if reporters take this obligation more seriously. A demonstrably false statement should not simply be repeated without comment or balanced only by a partisan source. If journalists are uncomfortable calling a lie a lie, they should at least find neutral or non-partisan sources who are willing to do so. Citing only partisan sources all too often creates the impression that there is serious disagreement when, in reality, the facts are quite clear.

Journalists often protest that this sort lying and misdirection is "just politics as usual." But this profoundly misconceives the role that the media plays in enabling this sort of behavior. On many levels, politics is a game, and like any game, the players will adjust to the level of officiating. If the refs are unwilling to blow the whistle, the game is going to get pretty rough and dirty. But if the refs step in and start calling some fouls, the players will react accordingly, and the level of our political discourse will improve overnight.

Until that happens, however, the Scott McClellans of the world are going to continue to lie right to our faces, and unscrupulous politicians will continue to be confident that they can deflect serious allegations by baldly mischaracterizing the positions of their opponents.

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