It’s time to tell two truths about Big Lie politics — and one about the news media, whose job is to make sure that you are not deceived by the lies.
— Truth One: Big Lie politics is flourishing, yet again, in Campaign 2008. It is being done, of course, because it works: The lies and distortions, once uttered or aired, are repeated; and every time they are recycled some false notions stick in the heads of some of the people. Big Lies have won elections and may do so again.
— Truth Two: While Democrats and Republicans have both perfected the craft of the Big Lie, the practice has not been fairly balanced in 2008. Most egregious deceits and distortions have come from one side, in messages and ads either made or approved by a man I have long respected for his ethics and (I thought) honesty: John McCain.
— Truth Three: The Big Lie works mainly because my colleagues in the news media are still not very good at exposing the liars, their lies and their willful, cynical strategies that seek to deceive you before you vote. While political journalists are focusing on fact checking and truth-telling more than ever, they have been working under a misunderstanding of what it means to be fair and balanced.
Journalists operating under the well intentioned premise that to be fair, each report must be balanced by presenting samplings from both sides. Such as lies from the left as well as from the right. But in 2008, Big Lie politics hasn’t yet happened that way. No matter. Often major untruths are paired with minor exaggerations — and all are covered as fairly and balanced equal offenses. Usually, the reports begin with a sentence that says all sides are making statements that stretch the facts.
No wonder you don’t know what is really happening in Campaign 2008.
By far the best job of truth-telling has been done online by the nonpartisan, nonprofit FactCheck.org, which is headed by former Associated Press and CNN reporter Brooks Jackson and is funded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, of the University of Pennsylvania. As in this: "McCain misrepresents Obama’s tax proposals again. And again, and again."
Examples: A McCain ad graphic that reported, falsely, that Obama would "raise taxes on middle class." The truth is that under Obama’s plan, more than 90 percent of Americans would get tax cuts; the only increases would be paid by taxpayers with family incomes over $250,000 or individual incomes over $200,000. There was also a Spanish-language McCain radio ad that falsely claimed Obama would raise taxes on "families" earning $42,000.
The web site contains a long list of McCain ads that made false claims about Obama tax increases. "A continuing pattern of deceit," concluded the FactCheck.org experts concluded.
McCain, who has long championed decent politics and surely knows better, says he approved those ads. He also says he approved the ad that attacked Obama’s record on education by making a smarmy claim his team surely knew was blatantly inaccurate.
As pictures of kindergarten-age children and a baffled looking Obama filled the screen, McCain’s ad claimed "Obama’s one accomplishment" was "legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergarteners." McCain’s advisers knew the measure, an Illinois state senate bill that another legislator introduced and which never was enacted, provided that kindergarteners and other young students should only be taught "age-appropriate" information such as how to recognize and avoid inappropriate touching and other abuses.
Like so many examples of Big Lie politics, this ad was put into play on the assumption that the electronic media would give it extensive free airing. And the nonstop cable news networks filled their time by obliging. The Big Lie was repeated, in a distortion compounded by the repeated visual imagery.
"A factual failure," was the conclusion of FactCheck.org about McCain’s sleazy sex education claim about Obama. But McCain’s media masters might as well have hoisted a banner: "Mission Accomplished."
In his long career, McCain has been on the receiving and giving ends of Big Lie politics. He has felt the lash of it and vowed to rise above it. Having known and respected McCain for years, I find the latest chapter most sad. I never expected that this respected war hero would have ever countenanced campaign ads that were so contrary to the ideals he revered about America back in his darkest days four decades ago, when his country was but a beacon half a world away.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)