WHEN MERIT IS IRRELEVANT…. ABC News ran a report on the end of the “controversy” surrounding President Obama encouraging young people to do well in school. ABC’s Dan Harris noted that the speech itself “turned out to be little more than a pep talk on the importance of staying in school.” Imagine that.

But the report went on to raise a depressing observation.

While the media loves a good fight — even when the charges are unfounded — there may be more to conservatives’ complaints that play into larger concerns about the president on health care reform. [emphasis added]

It doesn’t matter if manufactured outrage makes sense, what matters is that the media “loves a good fight.” Eric Boehlert noted in response, “[D]o I even have to mention that the media’s new-found love of unfounded fights is an Obama era special. Or can somebody point me towards the manufactured, unfounded ‘controversies’ hatched during the Bush years that the press treated as big news. (As I’ve noted, when conservatives — and overwhelming white — activists get mad, it’s news. When liberals do it, it’s annoying.)”

I’d just add that it creates a ridiculous system of incentives. The president’s right-wing detractors, for all of their faults, aren’t oblivious to how the media operates. They’ve learned that all they have to do is levy a charge — it doesn’t matter if it’s true, sensible, hypocritical, or coherent — and it’s “news.” Americans will be told, “Conservatives today charged President Obama with [doing something nefarious]. Democrats and policy experts called the allegations baseless.”

If the media just loves the fight — “even when the charges are unfounded” — all it does is encourage professional liars and hysterics to make up more nonsense. Not only are they shielded from accountability, they’re actually rewarded.

It’s what’s different about today’s right-wing smear machine. We know that the roots of the “tree of crazy” run deep. Leaders of the civil rights movement were accused of being a Soviet plot. The Civil Rights Act was believed to be intended to “enslave” whites. A prominent right-wing radio host insisted in the early ’60s that JFK was building a political prison in Alaska to detain critics of the administration. When FDR proposed Social Security, the conservatives of the era not only screamed about “socialism,” but told the public Roosevelt would force Americans to wear dog tags.

Today’s right-wing voices are part of the same phenomenon, but instead of responsible news outlets dismissing the crazies as being part of a ridiculous fringe, we now have media outlets with looser standards. After all, they love a good fight — even when the charges are unfounded.

Steve Benen

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.