Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

  Making liars pay a price

This article by Edward Wasserman is generating some discussion about what the traditional media should do when influential people spread misinformation to the public. Propaganda works essentially by means of repetition, so reporting the lies only to correct them typically assists in disseminating them. No wonder that so many Americans believe the nonsense being spread by opponents of health care reform, given that the US media, without bothering to explain the details of the proposed reforms, has played those myths up even when reporters did point out that the complaints are imaginary.

Wasserman is of course right that merely debunking persistent lies doesn't work to deflate them. But his proposed solution won't work either.

Wasserman, taking his cue from Greg Marx's post at the Columbia Journalism Review, argues that the trad media should somehow train itself to just ignore the liars and thus deprive their lies of oxygen. But that takes no account of Fox News, viral emails, televised blab fests, and all the modern means of disseminating politically convenient lies.

As tristero points out, that solution would have done nothing to halt the disastrous rush to war against Iraq with all the misinformation being spread by the Bush administration and its busy little helpers. But tristero's solution, for the media to learn to mock the liars, is unlikely to happen. And though it would be a good start, it's insufficient because rebuttals are necessary as well. It's hard to harness ridicule to serious fact-checking.

A better solution is for the media to make sure that the liars pay a steep price for every lie they try to disseminate. Here for example is a scenario offered by Wasserman:

Suppose some headline-loving political eminence announces that the reason the health system is in crisis is illegal immigration. Now, you could refute that with experts, with numbers, with facts. And it wouldn't matter a bit -- not if you lead your newscast with him, if you let that week's debate revolve around his claims. You'd still whip up rage, you'd still give him a soapbox, you'd still bleed off attention from the issues lawmakers need to tackle to fix healthcare, you'd still create a population that believes something that isn't so.


The real solution seems pretty self-intuitive: Make the story about a liar spreading lies. Put your politician on the defensive by making him the focus of the story. Describe how he is making things up, call them 'lies', show the extent to which he's doing it deliberately, and let him try to defend himself. If he weasels out or backtracks, ask him when he's going to set the record straight publicly and if he'll be apologizing to the people he misled. If necessary, target the liar repeatedly and remind your audience of other lies the politician has foisted on the public.

In other words, confront the sons of bitches who are screwing up political discourse by spreading lies. Make it clear that there's a heavy price to pay for lying, and lies will become less attractive.

Didn't any reporters in America ever learn how to deal with schoolyard bullies? Punch the political bullies hard in the nose and they'll leave us in peace. Maybe literally.

crossposted at unbossed.com

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