THE GOP SMEAR MACHINE FINDS NEW TARGETS…. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post ran a painfully misleading piece on Monday attacking Harold Hongju Koh, the Yale Law School dean President Obama nominated to serve as the legal adviser to the State Department. By yesterday, Fox News was running segments about Koh wanting to impose sharia law on the U.S., and Glenn Beck was lying to his audience, telling them that Koh might “sign our rights over to international law.” All of this, of course, is ridiculous.

At the same time, some of the same right-wing smear artists went after Dawn Johnsen, Obama’s choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel. Despite obvious qualifications, Republican senators are openly discussing the possibility of filibustering the nomination, in part because she has the audacity to be pro-choice.

If you’re looking for two case studies in how unhinged conservative activists, their cable news network, and their congressional allies try to destroy reputations, the efforts to destroy Koh and Johnsen are classic cases. They follow predictable patterns: manufacture a lie, convince news outlets with no integrity to promote the lie, and let the gears of the smear machine work their magic.

Dahlia Lithwick does the requisite fact-checking, debunking the smears, before explaining why these tactics are so offensive.

This kind of vicious slash-and-burn character attack, the kind in which the nominee is attacked as a vicious hater of America, is hardly new. The little trick of upending Dean Koh’s legal arguments and recharacterizing them as the nefarious plotting of Dr. Evil is a surprise to nobody at this point. But we can be bothered even if we’re not surprised. When moderate Americans and the mainstream media allow a handful of right-wing zealots to occupy the field in the public discussions of an Obama nominee, they become complicit in a character assassination. […]

As Neil Lewis observes today in the New York Times, the attack on Johnsen (who is an acquaintance and used to write for Slate) also started out with an attack from a handful of conservative blogs. The posts asserted that a 20-year-old footnote in a brief Johnsen had authored “equated pregnancy with slavery.” And this bizarre claim rapidly became a holy truth to Senate Republicans at her confirmation hearing, even when they couldn’t quite recall where they had read it or why.

There is no rest stop on the misinformation superhighway. Some senators apparently cannot be bothered to fact-check the claims they have read in the blogosphere. And that makes the rest of us responsible for fact-checking them as needed and for getting angry when good people are smeared for views they do not hold. One needn’t read all of the thousands of pages Koh has written over his career to find an opinion or argument with which you disagree. But the fact that his critics must fabricate Koh’s opinions in order to take issue with them suggests that they haven’t read any of them.

I’m doubly bothered by the radio silence in the mainstream media because Johnsen and Koh represent two of President Obama’s bravest choices. Both have been outspoken critics of Bush administration excesses, and they have done so openly and unequivocally. They were willing to use strong words like torture and illegal long before most of us could bring ourselves to do so. President Obama could have named a pair of mild-mannered tax attorneys to these high government positions. Instead, he opted to pick precisely the sorts of people we most need there: fierce advocates who care deeply about these agencies and the law as it applies to them.

There is no excuse for this character assassination. The conservative movement is obviously incapable of shame, but now would be an excellent time for some.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.