Some who have been admirers of John McCain think that the war hero has debased himself by using gross distortions to trash Barack Obama and his record. Others see the media fury over McCain's campaign ads as more evidence of a double standard driven by liberal bias at most major news organizations.
Both are right. Although each candidate is responsible for many distortions -- hardly a novelty -- McCain has lately been leading the race to the bottom. (Since the print version of this column went to press, Obama may have pulled even with McCain in the race to the bottom, or even ahead of him, by launching a scurrilously dishonest new Spanish-language TV ad. It misleadingly portrays McCain "and his Republican friends" as anti-immigrant bigots who say "lies just to get our vote." It also associates McCain with deceptively out-of-context quotes by Rush Limbaugh -- no friend of McCain's -- about "stupid and unskilled Mexicans." Jake Tapper of ABC News provides details.)
At the same time, many in the media have been one-sided, sometimes adding to Obama's distortions rather than acting as impartial reporters of fact and referees of the mud fights.
We still have many great journalists, but I no longer trust the major newspapers or television networks to provide consistently accurate and fair reporting and analysis of all the charges and countercharges. This in an era when the noise produced by highly partisan TV hosts and blogs creates a crying need for at least one newspaper that we can count on to play it straight.
Indeed, one reason that candidates get away with dishonest campaign ads and speeches may be that it is so hard for undecided voters like me to discern which charges are true, which are exaggerated, and which are false. Most people can't spend hours every day cross-checking diverse sources of information to verify the accuracy of slanted stories and broadcasts such as these:
* In Sarah Palin's first big media interview, on September 11, Charlie Gibson of ABC News asked: "You said recently, in your old church, 'Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.' Are we fighting a holy war?" Palin responded: "You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote." Gibson pressed: "Exact words."
Viewers had no way of knowing that, in fact, Gibson was distorting Palin's meaning by leaving out critical context and thus making an unremarkable exhortation to prayer sound like a declaration of holy war. Palin had not said that the war was a task from God. She had urged her listeners to "pray" that it was a task from God. A September 3 Associated Press report by Gene Johnson distorted Palin's meaning in exactly the same way.
* A front-page story in the September 12 Washington Post, by Anne Kornblut, was headlined: "Palin Links Iraq to Sept. 11 in Talk to Troops in Alaska." This was misleading, as were the first two paragraphs. They implied that Palin had advanced the long-discredited "idea that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein helped Al Qaeda plan the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon." In fact, Palin's reasonably clear meaning was not that Saddam had a role in the 9/11 attacks but that (as the article backhandedly acknowledged) the troops would be fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is related to the group that launched the 9/11 attacks.
* The New York Times did a huge (3,120-word) front-page story on February 21 implying that McCain had had a sexual affair with a female lobbyist while doing her political favors. But the article lacked strong evidence either that there had been a sexual affair or that McCain had crossed legal or ethical lines to do favors. Would The Times have printed the same story had the senator been Barack Obama or John Kerry? I doubt it.
* The Times also rushed to assert, in a front-page story on September 2 questioning how carefully McCain vetted Palin's background, that she "was a member for two years in the 1990s of the Alaska Independence Party, which has at times sought a vote on whether the state should secede." This turned out to be erroneous. (Her husband had previously been a member.)
This is not to deny that McCain deserves much of the criticism he has received for his distortions about Obama. But not all of it. Take the ad on which the most-bitter media complaints -- "blizzard of lies" and the like -- have focused. It asserts that Obama's "one accomplishment" in the area of education was "legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergarteners."
But the bill was not Obama's (he was not a sponsor), was not an accomplishment (it never passed), and would not have been his "only" accomplishment even if it had passed. More important, it called for extending only "age appropriate" sex ed from sixth grade down to kindergarten. There is no reason to doubt Obama's explanation that he wanted kindergartners to be taught only the dangers of inappropriate touching.
But a Times editorial overstated the case in saying that "the kindergarten ad flat-out lies" and that "at most, kindergartners were to be taught the dangers of sexual predators." In fact, whatever Obama's intention, the bill itself was designed "to mandate that issues like contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases be included in sex-education classes for children below sixth grade, and as early as kindergarten," as Byron York demonstrates in a detailed National Review Online article.
McCain has also lowered himself by claiming repeatedly, and incorrectly, that Obama's proposals would raise taxes on the middle class. (In fact, Obama would cut middle-class taxes more than McCain would.) And his campaign has descended into fatuousness by implausibly claiming that Obama was trying to demean Sarah Palin when he used the "lipstick on a pig" analogy to criticize McCain's economic proposals.
Obama seems to prefer a more civil discourse. But he, too, has sometimes lowered himself, without provoking anything like the media outcry against McCain. Obama falsely claimed in February that McCain "is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq." In fact, McCain had made it clear that just as "we've been in Japan for 60 years," he could see a 100-year presence in Iraq -- but only "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."
More recently, Obama has run misleading ads claiming that McCain has voted to cut education funding and would give "$200 billion more to special interests while taking money away from public schools"; implying that his aides are still lobbying for special interests; and more.
McCain also deserves criticism for the ugly culture-warring epitomized at the Republican convention by Rudy Giuliani's keynote speech and sneers about Obama's stint as a community organizer. But who started the culture-warring? Democratic talking heads and pols -- although not Obama -- heaped disdain on Palin's social class, religion, and anti-abortion values from the moment that McCain plucked her from obscurity.
I was deeply dismayed by the 72-year-old McCain's reckless choice of the inexperienced and untested Palin to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. But I am also deeply skeptical when I see front-page headlines like "As Mayor of Wasilla, Palin Cut Own Duties, Left Trail of Bad Blood" (Washington Post, September 14), or "Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes" (New York Times, same day). Such loaded language is a badge not of a newsroom committed to impartial investigation but of an ideological echo chamber.
Many media commentators also exude a conviction that Republicans have long played dirtier and more dishonest political hardball than do Democrats. Maybe, but I'm not so sure. We are often reminded of Republican sins ranging from the (accurate) Willie Horton ads of 1988 to the (over-the-top) "Swiftboating" of 2004. We hear a lot less about Democratic sins such as President Clinton's distortions of Bob Dole's position on Medicare in 1996 and the NAACP's stunningly scurrilous ad campaign in 2000 associating George W. Bush's opposition to a hate crimes bill with the racist murderers who dragged James Byrd behind a truck.
Ironically, there is some evidence that media venting about McCain's ads may be helping McCain. The venting, especially on TV gabfests, draws much more attention than the ads themselves, while distracting attention from the issues on which Obama wants to focus. Indeed, reportedly the McCain campaign often buys little or no TV time to air the ads, preferring to get them on the air free, denunciations and all.
Consider also a fascinating Washington Post piece by Shankar Vedantam on September 15. He cites studies showing not only that "misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people's minds [even] after it has been debunked" -- especially among those predisposed to believe it -- but also that refutations sometimes backfire by increasing the number of people who believe the original misinformation.
The studies found this refutation "backfire effect" among conservatives but not liberals. Part of the explanation may be that conservatives have more-rigid views than liberals, as political scientists quoted by Vedantam suggest. And part of it may be that conservatives have more reason to distrust the usual refuters.
Correction: My September 13 column erred in saying that in 2003, as an Illinois legislator, Barack Obama "unsuccessfully" opposed a bill nearly identical to the federal "Born Alive Infant Protection Act." In fact, he helped kill the bill.
This article appears in the September 20, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.