‘THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NEWS AND PROPAGANDA’…. E.J. Dionne Jr. considers the smearing of Shirley Sherrod as a possible “turning point in American politics,” but not for the reason that generated so much discussion last week.

For the Washington Post, the reason this is a “time for action” is the right has embraced “racial backlash politics” in the hopes of destroying President Obama, and news organizations — treating extremist rants as “one side of the story” — are accepting right-wing propaganda as legitimate.

Dionne laments the Obama administration’s initial handling of the Sherrod matter, but noted that “the Obama team was reacting to a reality: the bludgeoning of mainstream journalism into looking timorously over its right shoulder and believing that ‘balance’ demands taking seriously whatever sludge the far right is pumping into the political waters.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon — see 2000, presidential election of — but it’s getting worse.

There were no “death panels” in the Democratic health-care bills. But this false charge got so much coverage that an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last August found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow “the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly.” That was the summer when support for reform was dropping precipitously. A straight-out lie influenced the course of one of our most important debates.

The traditional media are so petrified of being called “liberal” that they are prepared to allow the Breitbarts of the world to become their assignment editors. Mainstream journalists regularly criticize themselves for not jumping fast enough or high enough when the Fox crowd demands coverage of one of their attack lines.

Thus did Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander ask this month why the paper had been slow to report on “the Justice Department’s decision to scale down a voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party.” Never mind that this is a story about a tiny group of crackpots who stopped no one from voting. It was aimed at doing what the doctored video Breitbart posted set out to do: convince Americans that the Obama administration favors blacks over whites.

Dionne concludes that, in addition to the administration learning a lesson about overreacting to an inane media climate, “the mainstream media should stop being afraid of insisting on the difference between news and propaganda.”

That’s exceptionally good advice, which will almost certainly be ignored.

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.