Thursday, October 16, 2008

No Moral Equivalence

The media have gotten in the habit of creating false moral equivalences where there are none. They do so, presumably, in the name of a misguided sense of fairness and balance (with the exception of the Fair and Balanced network, Fox News, which unabashedly gives 3 times as much airtime to Republicans as to Democrats). But building artificial parallels, and destroying any sense of proportion in the process, is not a service to the public, it is a disservice to journalism and its audience.

My previous post exposes one such glaringly false parallel: the false analogy the media have built between voter registration fraud, perpetrated by canvassers who work for a non-partisan organization (ACORN) that helps the poor and disenfranchised (Democrats, mainly) and illegal voter suppression tactics, perpetrated by Republican operatives to disenfranchise large numbers of mainly Democratic voters in swing states.

But the perfect example of how the media manufacture balance where there is none is their treatment of campaign negativity.

Let’s get this out of the way: Both sides engage in spin. Both sides have talking points. Both sides try to paint their candidate in the best possible light and his opponent in the worst one possible. Both sides resort to negative attacks. But that is where the similarities end.

However, while both campaigns are indeed guilty of many forms of negative attacks, there are substantial differences in the type, the degree and the gravity of the accusations that are flung around.

For example, saying that a candidate is erratic, or that he behaves erratically, as Obama and his campaign have done about McCain, is aimed at painting a picture of John McCain's volatility, lack of resolve, and impulsive temperament.

Saying that a candidate pals around with terrorists, as Sarah Palin said of Obama's superficial association with William Ayers, is not just commentary on Obama's presumed lack of judgement: it is a pedestrian and inflammatory effort to paint him as a terrorist, a truly dangerous individual. So it is not surprising (and perhaps not altogether accidental) when a deranged individual at a McCain rally yells "Terrorist!"

Saying that John McCain's plans are a repeat of the policies of the sitting president is an attempt to convince people who are not happy with the way things have been going for eight years to vote for change.

Selectively quoting Sen. Obama's statement that "We’ve got to get the job done [in Afghanistan], and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there" to make it sound like Obama actually said that our troops are "just air-raiding villages and killing civilians" attempts to paint Sen. Obama as unpatriotic and unworthy of being commander-in-chief because he hates our troops. It is no wonder, then, that other deranged individuals at McCain and Palin rallies yelled "Traitor!" and "Off with his head!"

Stating that a John McCain White House would be run by lobbyists, as evidenced by the number of lobbyists who occupy important roles in McCain's campaign (including Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manage) is designed to convince people that it would be corporate interest, not their interest, that would be served by a McCain presidency, without going as far as saying that Sen. McCain is a crook.

But stating, as McCain did on several occasions, that Obama is a Chicago-style politician is a direct and unsubstantiated assault on Obama's character. It doesn't just say that he is bought by special interests. It says, essentially, that Obama is corrupt and that he associates with shady characters. That is worse than saying someone associates with lobbyists, because it is a not so thinly veiled attack on the moral fiber of Obama the person, not Obama the politician.

Arguing that Roe v Wade should be settled law, as Sen. Obama believes, and that the right of women to have access to legal abortion services should not be repealed is a policy position, however misguided one might think it is.

Accusing Obama of having "extreme pro-abortion views" (instead of pro-choice) is read meat for Evangelicals and is code for "baby killer." In other words, McCain implies that Obama is not simply a bad choice for president, but a dangerous one (and trust me, many Evangelicals hold that view.)

There is no argument on the fact that both campaigns are guilty to a smaller or larger degree of deceiving the public about the other candidate, and in a perfect world that would not be condoned or tolerated. But it is one thing to go after (and often distort) the policy differences of your opponent. It is quite another to systematically demonize your opponent, to impugn not simply his judgment but his character and his moral compass, to rally fear about him instead of promoting your own merits.

Let's be clear: Only one campaign is engaging in gutter politics.

There is no equivalence.

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