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If you can’t beat them, silence them September 10, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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Senator Obama warned us that this election wouldn’t be a landslide, but once the party primaries sifted out, I confess that I did not believe him.  The Republican Party has been steeped in scandal, and it seemed like not a week passed without news stories on GOP corruption.  How could our country objectively look at the positions, candidates, and last 8 years and not elect Barack?  I realize this logic is naively flawed, but it has now been strangely validated – this week I discovered that the McCain campaign reached the same conclusion…and crafted a devious plan to compensate for it.

Anyone who tuned in the to Republican National Convention last week (or follows the news in any way) is aware of the recent escalation of “media bashing.”  Traditionally, the media have served as objective watchdogs of governmental power, reporting abuses to the electorate as they are uncovered.  With the consolidation of power under this administration and a GOP audaciously albeit creatively circumventing numerous laws, it is no surprise that Republicans have found themselves receiving increasing amounts of negative coverage.  As more scandals were uncovered, the national tone of reporting became increasingly anti-Republican.  This is not evidence of media bias, it is a result of unprecedented levels of illegality by GOP lawmakers and appointees.  The media calls out democrats when they misbehave as well, but that has been rare under this administration because there is only so much mischief a weak, powerless party can achieve.

In researching and following developments in environmental policy, I have been appalled by the blatant lies told by industry front groups and even brazen GOP lawmakers in their fanatical quests to sacrifice our country on behalf of the energy lobbies that fund their campaigns.  Of those politicians, my personal favorite is Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who served as the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee for 5 years (and still serves as minority leader today) despite being the most outspoken climate denier in our government’s history.  This specimen deserves and shall receive his own post in the future.

But I digress.  The point here is that when politicians lie, accurate reporting will necessitate the refutation of the lie in question.  This is not partisan coverage, it’s the presentation of fact.  Since in recent years the Republican Party has chosen to wage a PR campaign of self-preservation rather than tell the public inconvenient truths (sorry), it has found itself increasingly at odds with the media.  Stephen Colbert summed up this mentality perfectly during his presentation at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006 (which also happens to the best (read: funniest) speech I have ever seen – watch the first half, you’ll thank me). 

After mentioning Bush’s low poll numbers, Stephen complains: “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

So what does this have to do with the campaign?  Everything.  As Republican lies have become more outrageous (keep looking for my post on offshore drilling, I will get to it soon), the media cannot help but favor Democrats even while bending backwards over themselves to be “fair and balanced.”  And as investigative journalism increasingly gives way to the sensationalist coverage of ‘he-said, she-said’ campaign sound bites, it has become even easier to paint the media as biased.  Add Sarah Palin to the mix and I once again find myself begrudgingly blogging about the brilliance of McCain’s strategists.

Palin has two major strengths in this assault on the media.  First, because she was relatively unknown and so thoroughly unvetted, the media were completely scrambling to figure out who she was when her name was announced.  Her virtual anonymity left them asking unusual questions and even chasing down rumors.  This discredited and marginalized even the most trusted names in news.  McCain spokespeople expertly spun the situation, grouping mainstream outlets with the tabloids in their outraged denunciations so that they could level disgraceful yet not technically untruthful charges against the media as a whole.  Second, Palin is a woman.  Although the Daily Show demonstrated the humor of juxtaposing the Republican denials of sexism while Hillary was running with those same peoples’ now furious denunciations of sexist media coverage on Palin, I fear this opportunistic hypocrisy will be lost on much of the public. 

And this matters. The McCain campaign knows they could never win this election by the merits of their platform.  That is why they insist this election is not about the issues.  So in a deliberate stroke, they have masterfully silenced the media, effectively removing a crucial voice from the political debate.  Campaigns will always point out the flaws of their opponents, but even truthful charges from an opposing campaign will rarely pierce the dogma of a loyal supporter; we rely on the media to research and report what is true and what is false, particularly regarding negative campaigning.  Without the media to serve that crucial role of independent fact-checker, we are left simply with a shouting match in place of a debate. 

The Obama campaign has been accurately (if quietly) pointing out McCain’s lies and contradictions, but the elitist charge seems to have stuck and people are suspicious of a campaign’s statements about a challenger.  Now that the McCain-Palin campaign has successfully discredited the only other mouthpiece for their shortcomings, for many, the only remaining trusted narrative about that campaign will be its own – and they have nothing but nice things to say about themselves.