September 13, 2008

Are the media finally pulling their heads out?

Karl Rovean political campaigns rely heavily on certain assumptions about the behavior of talking heads: that they enjoy spreading gossip as news, are obsessed with drugs and sex, and reflexively jerk to the right at the merest hint of the phrase `liberal media bias'. Keep the talking heads talking about artificial scandal and inane innuendo, the thinking goes, and Democrats (and moderate Republicans) won't have a chance to get a policy word in edgewise.

This past week has seen an especially ugly Rovean campaign on the part of John McCain. And it's not just me who thinks so. It's the New York Times:

Mr. Obama has also been accused of distortions, but this week Mr. McCain has found himself under particularly heavy fire for a pair of headline-grabbing attacks. First the McCain campaign twisted Mr. Obama’s words to suggest that he had compared Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, to a pig after Mr. Obama said, in questioning Mr. McCain’s claim to be the change agent in the race, “You can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.” (Mr. McCain once used the same expression to describe Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health plan.)

Note that this isn't a `Senator McCain said ... but the Obama campaign responds that ....' story, the usual pattern these sorts of stories take. McCain is twisting Obama's words, making false claims and incorrect assertions. The truth is identified, not as talking points from the Obama campaign, but as assertions of fact. Even better, the article is accompanied by a graphic in which McCain and Palin's assertions about Obama's policy positions (and the Bridge to Nowhere) are contrasted with nonpartisan analysis of those policy positions.

Are the media finally waking up and realizing that their job in the political process is fact-checker, not stenographer and gossip rag writer? The more -- and more prominently -- stories like this appear, the worse the Rovean campaign tactics will misfire. This NYT piece -- and the fact that it's linked on MSNBC's and US Today's front pages -- are positive signs. As is this piece on Newsweek's front page. On the other hand, CNN and (of course) Fox News have absolutely nothing.

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