Political Animal


August 16, 2012 8:51 AM Dealing With Campaign Lies: Positive Ideas

By Ed Kilgore

I was proud to have participated yesterday in a round of public agonizing over the news media’s indifference to the systematic, lavishly funded, and racially toxic Romney campaign of lies about Obama’s record on welfare. I hope a few beat reporters were shamed into reconsidering their cynical tolerance for these sorts of tactics. But in the meantime, The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta suggests some ways that editors and news organization can help with antidotes to the poison:

Objective news outlets had to deal with this last cycle, too. Remember the huge controversy over how to cover the allegations that Obama was a Muslim without just publicizing the smear — or suggesting that there is anything wrong with being Muslim?
The solution now as then lies in repeated boilerplate, either inserted by editors who back-stop their writers, or by writers who save it as B-matter (background or pre-written text) so they don’t have to come up with a new way of saying something every single time they file. Basic, simple, brief factual boilerplate can save an article from becoming a crutch for one campaign or the other; can save time; and can give readers a fuller understanding of the campaigns, even if they haven’t had time to read deep dives on complex topics.
“Obama, who is a Christian” was the macro of the 2008 cycle in reporting on the “Barack Obama is a Muslim” smears. Also widely used: “the false allegation that Obama is Muslim.” Such careful writing may not have done much to disabuse nearly a fifth of Americans of the idea that Obama is a Muslim — national newspaper stories can influence elite opinion while barely making a dent on widely held views in a nation of more than 300 million — but they provided readers with an accurate sense of the facts while learning about a politically significant campaign development.

It’s a good idea. Sometimes a bad habit—e.g., growing inured to campaign lies—can only be fought with the deliberate practice of a good habit—pointing out relatively non-controvertible facts when they are ignored or abused.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • JMG on August 16, 2012 9:01 AM:

    Dear Ed: This very useful idea is doomed by the belief by those who own and manage news media that presenting information that simply contradicts ANYONE'S beliefs is bad for business. "Give 'em what they want and for God's sake don't offend anyone" is the imperative for all media not directly partisan, such as Fox News or "The Ed Show."

  • T2 on August 16, 2012 9:13 AM:

    I woke up to read actual stories in my newspaper that correctly identified two Romney lies as just not being true. I was amazed, and a happier day is in store.

  • terraformer on August 16, 2012 9:19 AM:

    I think we need to see more use of the word "lie" in stories like this.

    Instead, we see "falsehood"; "false allegation"; "untruthful" and the like.

    I'd wager people would take notice of the simple, declarative word "lie" when compared to the lazy terms above and others often used. Most people don't talk that way in normal conversation - so use the word that people DO use.

    But that wouldn't be "fair and balanced," would it? That would be taking sides.

  • alwaysiamcaesar on August 16, 2012 9:29 AM:

    The art is to present evidence without the artless hand of a censors view in an editorial imprimatur .
    The Flying Wallenda Editors , where the defiance of death is one mortal comma away .

  • boatboy_srq on August 16, 2012 9:41 AM:

    Would this year's boilerplate read: "Romney, who's lying,..."?

    Considering that the only time he seems to tell the truth is when he tells the press that they're not going to learn any more about his finances, or when he says that he really, really wants to be pResident because it's his turn for Pete's sake.

  • stevio on August 16, 2012 9:47 AM:

    Simple solution. Obama calls a press conference. Looks straight into the camera and reads a list of patently false things about Romney and Ryan. Maybe five or six. Then calls for questions.

    After his assertions are "called" false. he then asks them why they aren't they reporting the same for all campaign lies.

    Empower them to call the lie what it is. Teach them their job. I saw that ,of all people, Chuck Todd called-out a GOP Governor earlier today. It's not hard. Just do it. Same for Obama. If he jerks the truth around he should get the same treatment.

    Forget FOX they won't be honest about anything.

  • JDT on August 16, 2012 9:49 AM:

    "Obama, who is a Christian" is far more effective than the alternatives because it puts the true fact that you want imprinted in people's brains upfront where it provides the context for all that follows. The truth has a chance to evoke whatever visceral response is associated with it. Only then should the content of the lie be repeated, along with the fact that a lie or error is being presented rather than a second true fact. Reversing the order, frequency, or authoritative status of the claims reverses the psychological effect.

  • c u n d gulag on August 16, 2012 9:52 AM:

    All of this sounds good for organizations that might actually still care - and that's if they ever did.

    But in the meantime, almost 2 million people watch FOX, every day, and goodness knows how many more listen to Rush and the other Right-wing Radio yappers.
    And when they're spreading their propaganda, they lie about EVERYTHING!

    And then there are the Sunday bloviation fests, where the host and almost all of his guests, will just echo the same talking point hits, over and over again.
    It's almost like listening to an Oldies radio station.

    David Gregory hasn't had an original idea since he thought of yelling "BOO!" whenever Tim Russert entered a room.
    And look how that turned out for us viewers. We went from insufferable, to intolerable.

    And some shows on MSNBC, and most on CNN, worry about offending anyone by calling them on their bullsh*t, lest they never come back and darken their towels again.

    Wolf would have an aneurism, live on TV, if he had to say the word, "lie."

    If THAT isn't a selling point, I don't know what is!

  • stormskies on August 16, 2012 10:09 AM:

    What Stevio said ... it's the perfect solution

  • Celui on August 16, 2012 10:15 AM:

    Of course: the foundation of all baseless innuendo is, well, the baseless lie. Given that this should be so simple to address and refute, the only following conclusion is that no-one, or few, care to publicly refute the lie. Once told, a lie grows exponentially. That's why it's so important to call it out immediately, loudly and keep hitting it, especially as these lies will apply to the seniors most affected, and to those whose very survival may depend on the availability of Medicaid. Where, in our recent history, did we learn to justify turning our backs on our elders, to the gratification of the stockholders and the CEO??? Looks more and more like 1927-28-29 from here. Today's Craptcha doodle: Mufkets pproht Second amendment Mufkets??

  • Adriana on August 16, 2012 10:16 AM:

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  • boatboy_srq on August 16, 2012 10:18 AM:

    @stevio and stormskies:

    First headline following said press conference: Obama Hostile to Journalists.

    "Professionals" hate to be told how to do their job - especially when they're not doing it.

  • emjayay on August 16, 2012 10:20 AM:

    Yeah, what Stevie said, plus TV commercial recaps. Obama has always been loathe to confront anything clearly and directly, which to me is his main personality problem. Perhaps mostly from an entire life from childhood on of being the single mother/half black guy in various very different social situations and wanting to fit in and get along with everyone.

  • dweb on August 16, 2012 10:32 AM:

    We're seeing it now with the RR claims that Obama "stole" $716 billion directly from seniors in order to "pay for Obamacare."

    An AP article in our local paper this morning covered this issue but never said the obvious....this is a flat out lie....instead you have to go deep into a second page jump to find anything which even suggested the information wasn't correct. He said, she said.

  • T2 on August 16, 2012 11:14 AM:

    Lies seem to work - Obama's lead, which was growing strongly last week based on the Romney Tax issue and Bain, has now evaporated and he's heading in the wrong direction.

  • pol on August 16, 2012 11:36 AM:

    Dweb, or they write totally misleading headlines. Booman Tribune linked to a pretty decent story in the Washington Post yesterday that explained how Obamacare improved Medicare, and refuted Romney's claim about stealing $716 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. The headline?

    Romneyís right: Obamacare cuts Medicare by $716 billion. Hereís how.


    Oh, and the refutation of Romney's lie was put in the last paragraph.

    "Itís worth noting that thereís one area these cuts donít touch: Medicare benefits. The Affordable Care Act rolls back payment rates for hospitals and insurers. It does not, however, change the basket of benefits that patients have access to. And, as Ezra pointed out earlier today, the Ryan budget would keep these cuts in place."

  • Linda on August 16, 2012 12:35 PM:

    Ed :: thank you for your article, helpful suggestions are much more useful than moaning and complaining. Please write a followup article which illustrates phrases which can be used for the Medicare issue and include that content in every future article you write about this subject.

    Thanks again

  • Linda on August 16, 2012 12:37 PM:

    Ed :: thank you for your article, helpful suggestions are much more useful than moaning and complaining. Please write a followup article which illustrates phrases which can be used for the Medicare issue and include that content in every future article you write about this subject.

    Thanks again

  • N.Wells on August 16, 2012 1:12 PM:

    I get why reporters want to keep opinions and editorializing out of articles, but this hand-off 'he said, she said' approach is going to be the death of democracy and a useful 4th estate. All they have to do is add a box off to the side at the bottom of the objective, non-editorializing, stenographic report that they love, saying something like, "The article reports what he said, but our best information is that the facts disagree with him. Go to (news organization link) for more information."

  • Ladyhawke on August 16, 2012 1:31 PM:



    1. Journalism's first obligation is to the truth

    Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. Journalism does not pursue truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but it can--and must--pursue it in a practical sense. This "journalistic truth" is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built--context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The truth, over time, emerges from this forum. As citizens encounter an ever greater flow of data, they have more need--not less--for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying that information and putting it in context.

    2. Its first loyalty is to citizens

    While news organizations answer to many constituencies, including advertisers and shareholders, the journalists in those organizations must maintain allegiance to citizens and the larger public interest above any other if they are to provide the news without fear or favor. This commitment to citizens first is the basis of a news organization's credibility, the implied covenant that tells the audience the coverage is not slanted for friends or advertisers. Commitment to citizens also means journalism should present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society. Ignoring certain citizens has the effect of disenfranchising them. The theory underlying the modern news industry has been the belief that credibility builds a broad and loyal audience, and that economic success follows in turn. In that regard, the business people in a news organization also must nurture--not exploit--their allegiance to the audience ahead of other considerations.

    More principles here....


  • Celui on August 16, 2012 2:30 PM:

    Man! I just read 'Ladyhawke's' entry above, returned to my undergrad days in mid-60s, heard my journo prof expounding thusly, and recalled this morning's bee-yoo-tiful interview by Diane Rehm with a rep from an '(oil) energy' lobbying association who couldn't recall from where his association got its funding. Diane calmly, with steely voice, told him that his own credibility was at stake by "not knowing" or by refusing to answer so critical a question. Diane Rehm for "Honest Journalist of our Times" award. And, it's PBS, of course. Go, Diane!!

  • buddy66 on August 16, 2012 4:16 PM:

    I used to be a news director for Pacifica Radio. I would have fired a writer for substituting a euphemism like "false allegation" for an outright lie. But we had principles and one of them was "Call It Like It Is."