On pecksniffs, Palin and the new Carnival of Buncombe

Maybe I’m just grousing right now about the endless spectacle of the media and politics, especially during a presidential campaign. Punditry like this, tethered to the whipping post of conventional horse race blather, has put me in a rather foul mood today.

Or perhaps it’s also because today is the birthday of H.L. Mencken, whose early-to-mid-20th century broadsides against American politics, journalism, Babbitry and Puritanism, as well as his passion for good eating, music, literature and cigars, remain a hell of a lot more interesting than any of the painfully measured political analysis we’re saddled with now. And the media hand-wringing that’s sprung up to counter it.

There are complaints that journalists cannot “call a lie a lie.” Yet this story from two weeks ago — written during the Republican convention, with a St. Paul dateline — explains that Sarah Palin did indeed support Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” before she opposed it. There are other examples of straightforward reporting on this subject.

An earlier post here quoted a high-profile political reporter calling McCain/Palin campaign’s “bridge to nowhere” claims “outrageous. And if you press them on it, they’ll fall because they know they can’t defend what they’re saying.”

Palin is no longer making any references to the bridge on the campaign trail. Not sure I understand what’s missing here to reflect that the Republican VP nominee clearly has said one thing and done another. Does the word “lie” actually have to appear in a straight news story?

The old political ploy to “Defeat the Press” is underway, and there are media critics incredulous that this is happening again. A reporter who’s covered national politics since 1960 writes that we shouldn’t be surprised. Or assume that this game is being played by only one party.

The truth has been under assault for decades. Mencken, who could hardly be accused of being “wishy-washy,” was on to this fairly early in his career. He covered far too many conventions, famously calling one “A Carnival of Buncombe,” not to know a journalist’s (or in his case a polemicist’s) best efforts to flesh out the truth may not make much of a difference at all. Myth often vanquishes the facts, if you subscribe to this view. Especially in the political arena.

In honor of Mencken’s birthday, I quote him here, at the risk of sounding like an elitist — or God forbid, a curmudgeon:

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”
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2 thoughts on “On pecksniffs, Palin and the new Carnival of Buncombe

  1. It’s true that there have been more fact-checking stories overall than some of us insta-press critics have given the media credit for. The USA Today story you link to is a good example of early, contemporaneous fact-checking of the bridge claim with an appropriate tone.

    But that tone and phrasing is appropriate when you fact-check a politician’s claim the first time they make it. When they repeat the false claim, journalists should not simply repeat the fact-check. They should say “the politician is repeating a lie.”

    So while Sarah Palin might have stopped referencing the bridge to nowhere on Sept. 10, she had repeated her lie about the bridge at least seven times between the time she was selected as John McCain’s running mate and the 10th.

    Again, by the fifth or sixth time, the news isn’t that Palin initially supported the bridge. The news is that a vice presidential candidate is repeatedly lying.

    While I find “the old political ploy” of attacking the press annoying, it’s not really germane to this discussion. Neither is Mencken’s view of the rabble. It’s the press’s duty to report the facts regardless of a political party’s talking points or the public’s behavior.

    (Incidentally — false-equivalency alert! — this attack-the-press game IS being played by only one party. Barack Obama may freeze out reporters he doesn’t like, which is petty and dumb. But in general he and other Democratic politicians don’t treat the press as a pesky interest group, or reality and the facts as up for grabs, or democracy as a game where certain candidates don’t have to tell the American people about their actual beliefs and policies or lack thereof.)

    In this case, the facts are that a politician is repeating a falsehood after it has been refuted. Unless you believe that Sarah Palin is stupid or sheltered, which I don’t, the only conclusion is that she’s deliberately misstating the truth. In English, we call that “a lie.”

    So yes, the word “lie” should appear in a straight news story if that is what a politician is doing.

    As I said in my post, “Sarah Palin lied about the bridge” is simply a descriptive statement. The statement does not judge her. Readers may judge her, but only because our culture views people who lie in a negative light. That’s not the press’s fault, and while it may be reason for Palin to stop lying, it’s no reason for journalists to stop calling a lie a lie.

    All that aside, I have a question. Most of us insta-critics are insta-criticizing to try to transform media and politics from the endless spectacle that you decry into a responsible part of civic and intellectual life.

    If you believe that the “common people” are too gullible to ever choose facts over myth, or that media and politics will never be a responsible part of 21st-century civic and intellectual life, that’s one thing. I’ll assume you’re not so cynical, because that would be sad.

    But if you don’t want “conventional horse race blather” and “painfully measured political analysis” on the one hand, and on the other hand you also don’t want “media hand-wringing” that’s trying to correct and improve that lame coverage, what exactly do you want?

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  2. Sarah Palin has been on the radar screen for exactly two — count ’em, two — weeks.

    Few people outside of Alaska political circles have heard of her. Reporters are there trying to track down other matters relating to her political career, such as the trooper story. It isn’t as though questions about Palin are not being raised. They are. Perhaps not as quickly, or adamantly, as you would like.

    What I really want is for all of us to take a deep breath. Let the reporters in Alaska and elsewhere charged to investigate Palin’s background do their jobs before anyone claiming an absolute monopoly on the truth rushes to judgment.

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