‘Lost control of the message’

‘LOST CONTROL OF THE MESSAGE’…. There was an interesting exchange yesterday in the White House briefing room. A reporter asked Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the administration’s message strategy when it comes to health care reform.

“I don’t know if you think it’s unfair to say, but it occurs to me that if the President finds himself at a town hall meeting telling the American people that he does not want to set up a panel to kill their grandparents, that perhaps there, at some point, the President has lost control of the message. And I’m wondering if you — if what you’ve seen in the last few weeks is one of the reasons why it was so important to the President earlier this year to pass health care reform in the House and Senate before the August recess. Is everything that’s going on right now what you feared would happen?”

Gibbs responded by noting that there’s “a tremendous amount of disinformation that’s out there.” He added, “[L]et’s be honest, you all, the media, tend to cover ‘X said this, Y said this,’ but some of you, but not everyone, does an investigation about whether what X said is actually true.”

And while I think Gibbs’ answer was true, and a raised an entirely legitimate argument that responsible news outlets should take seriously, the question raised a more specific point: whether the White House has “lost control of the message,” because the president feels compelled to respond to ridiculous right-wing lies that a painful number of Americans have come to believe.

Gibbs went on to say the president and his team believe it’s important to address misinformation directly. Fair enough. But I suspect Gibbs knows there’s at least some truth to the reporter’s argument — every moment the president spends setting the record straight on some ridiculous conservative claim is a moment he’s not spending touting the importance and benefits of health care reform.

But what does this tell us about the political process? I suspect the moral of the story is pretty straightforward: it pays to lie, blatantly and repeatedly, when launching a campaign against a policy initiative. If proponents ignore your bogus claims, they go uncontested, making it easier to persuade uninformed voters. If proponents challenge your bogus claims, the media will say they’ve “lost control of the message.”

Either way, the incentives to tell the truth and talk to Americans like grown-ups are minimal.