HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 8, 2008
From Liberty Street

Mock Fairness

John Turner


The latest flap at NBC News shows how hard it is, when a culture of phony objectivity has been established, to take a turn towards truth.

For years, the major networks have promoted the notion that since there are two major parties, fairness and objectivity demand that each be seen as pretty much the same sort of organization, promoting its own views and denigrating the other party's policies in about the same way. No allowance could be made for the possibility that one might adopt more deceitful and scurrilous tactics than the other.

The genius -- such as it is -- of Karl Rove and other leading Republican strategists was to see that as long as the networks held to that philosophy, nothing Republicans did, regardless of how false and filthy it was, could be reported as being worse than what the Democrats did. It was as though referees, in advance of a game, had decided that in order to be fair they would penalize each team equally, and one team, understanding the referees' philosophy decided to hold, block in the back, hit after the whistle, gouge eyes and kick in the groin on every play. They would be penalized, yes, but no more than the other team which was trying to play fairly. And if winning is all you care about, it's a pretty good strategy.

You'll notice that Keith Olbermann, who has been removed as the moderator of MSNBC political coverage is regularly described as being a liberal reporter. I've watched Olbermann regularly and I haven't heard him say much that's liberal. But, it's clear that he has become disgusted by Republican lies and foul play and is determined to point them out. And that, in the current atmosphere, is a no-no. It has drawn the ire of old-style correspondents, such as Tom Brokaw, who prefer to sit back lazily, pretend that that the two parties are composed of pretty much the same types of guys, and wax wise by reporting that each is contending in the election. It's a stance that puts Tom DeLay and Lindsay Graham on exactly the same level as Chris Dodd or Joe Biden.

This might be all right if the public were awake to what's going on. But, unfortunately, a majority seem to have followed the lead of the networks and think the Republicans are simply better fighters. And who wouldn't be a better fighter if he could load his gloves with lead weights and use his feet while his opponent was constrained by the Marquis of Queensbury rules?

There's no sense any longer in pretending that things are not as they are. Because of the networks' childish definition of objectivity, the Republicans can fight dirty and get away with it. So, what can the Democrats do?

The common response of intense partisans is to say: fight just as dirty as the Republicans do. That, I think, would be a mistake. People can't wander too far from who they are and not get into trouble. Republicans can fight dirty because that's who they are. Some Democrats might fit that bill, but most don't.

So, do the Democrats just have to give up? I don't think so. But they do have to change, and the biggest adjustment they need to make is in their use of language. Democrats have to stop being so mealy-mouthed. Sarah Palin, for example, has lied blatantly about her stance on earmarks. So Democrats have to start referring to her regularly as a liar. They should put up television messages immediately saying, "The Republican candidate for vice president is a liar. Is that who you want one accident away from the presidency?" And they should repeat that message every day until the election, no matter how the Republicans scream. Democrats need to keep in mind that the Republican campaign will be as filthy as the human mind can devise, regardless of what they do. There's nothing wrong with telling the truth, firmly and unmistakably, about that filth.

Democrats have got to start talking about Republican tactics and behavior as well as about Republican policies. The public knows already that Republican policies are bad for them. Virtually every poll tells us that. Simply continuing to point out the destructiveness of Republican policy, while necessary, will not win the election. The issue is not just what the Republican leadership wants to do -- reward the rich, punish and eliminate the middle class, and turn the nation into an empire. The issue is even more what the Republican leadership is, a pack of liars who engage habitually in despicable behavior.

Talk of that frankness may discomfit a few comfortable lazy-pants like Tom Brokaw. But truth is he needs to be assisted by a jolt or two.


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