Dealing With Campaign Lies: Positive Ideas

I was proud to have participated yesterday in a round of public agonizing over the news media’s indifference to the systematic, lavishly funded, and racially toxic Romney campaign of lies about Obama’s record on welfare. I hope a few beat reporters were shamed into reconsidering their cynical tolerance for these sorts of tactics. But in the meantime, The Atlantic‘s Garance Franke-Ruta suggests some ways that editors and news organization can help with antidotes to the poison:

Objective news outlets had to deal with this last cycle, too. Remember the huge controversy over how to cover the allegations that Obama was a Muslim without just publicizing the smear — or suggesting that there is anything wrong with being Muslim?

The solution now as then lies in repeated boilerplate, either inserted by editors who back-stop their writers, or by writers who save it as B-matter (background or pre-written text) so they don’t have to come up with a new way of saying something every single time they file. Basic, simple, brief factual boilerplate can save an article from becoming a crutch for one campaign or the other; can save time; and can give readers a fuller understanding of the campaigns, even if they haven’t had time to read deep dives on complex topics.

“Obama, who is a Christian” was the macro of the 2008 cycle in reporting on the “Barack Obama is a Muslim” smears. Also widely used: “the false allegation that Obama is Muslim.” Such careful writing may not have done much to disabuse nearly a fifth of Americans of the idea that Obama is a Muslim — national newspaper stories can influence elite opinion while barely making a dent on widely held views in a nation of more than 300 million — but they provided readers with an accurate sense of the facts while learning about a politically significant campaign development.

It’s a good idea. Sometimes a bad habit–e.g., growing inured to campaign lies–can only be fought with the deliberate practice of a good habit–pointing out relatively non-controvertible facts when they are ignored or abused.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.