James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘lying’

Klein sweep: No room for lying ‘Joe the Columnist’ on campaign plane

Posted by James McPherson on October 21, 2008

Time magazine’s Joe Klein has apparently been banned from the John McCain’s campaign plane, a ban that apparently bugs the liberal bloggers at the Huffington Post, Politico and Think Progress more than it does Klein himself.

The McCain camp’s reasoning seems obvious: Klein has regularly criticized the campaign, for example noting that the candidate had a “fabulously loony weekend, flipping out charges like a mud tornado” while criticizing Obama for supporting ideas that McCain himself has supported. Still, others argue that in some cases, if any bias exists, it’s because Klein has been too kind to McCain.

Regardless, in this case perhaps the blame in the campaign plane isn’t mainly on McCain, so to speak. Frankly, if I were a candidate I wouldn’t let Klein on my plane (or, given a choice, in my bus, my car, my office, my gym, or even on the same elevator), either–but not because he’s hypercritical (as opposed to hypocritical). Usually he’s not, and even if he were, there’s something be be said for the old adage about keeping your enemies close.

I also wouldn’t ban Klein because he has been criticized for not being friendly enough toward Israel (too big a concern for many modern politicians, in my view), or because of the quality of his writing, which often is more interesting and wittier than that of many of his cohorts–even if, in overly broad but telling words of John Cook in Radar magazine, “Klein’s body of work amounts to little more than a festival of projection and poorly disguised vanity.” (And who am I, or almost any blogger, to criticize that?)

No, none of those reasons would keep Klein (with whom I often agree, by the way) as far away from me as possible. I’d keep him at a distance because I know him to be is a sneak and a liar, if not insane (though maybe no crazier than journalism as a whole). I’m guessing that literary forensics expert and Vassar College professor Don Foster feels same way, and not because of how Klein and Time butchered their coverage of FISA wiretapping rules last year. That coverage favored conservatives, incidentally, one more reason McCain might want “Joe the Columnist” on his plane.

Sixteen years ago, Klein covered Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Four years later, during Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, a fictionalized version of that campaign became a bestseller during Clinton’s  at least in part because its author–listed only as “Anonymous”–provided an obvious inside look at Clinton’s life and politics. Parts of Primary Colors (which then became a popular film) the book were fictionalized, but no one knew exactly which parts, and “Guess the Author” became a favorite Washington game.

New York magazine hired Foster to crack the case, and CBS (which also employed Klein at the time) then interviewed Foster about his conclusion that Klein wrote the book (a conclusion previously reached by former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet in the Baltimore Sun). Klein adamently denied authorship until a handwriting analysis proved that he had lied even to his bosses at CBS and Newsweek.

Klein was forced to resign from CBS, but Newsweek merely made him apologize to readers whose trust he had betrayed. Even afterward, Klein showed no meaningful remorse and had no trouble finding subsequent media gigs–no surprise, since even after Oliver North lied under oath to Congress and the American people he became a network program host, even if it was on Fox News.

So there you have it, why I as a candidate would keep Klein off of my plane–along with the likes of fellow dissemblers George Will (read my book for a further discussion of Will’s lies), Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Of course I also have this fantasy that if I were a candidate I’d actually talk to real reporters.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The benefits of Chinese Rolexes, moving pyramids and expandable breasts

Posted by James McPherson on August 12, 2008

Politicians lie, and as long as the falsehoods come from the ones we like, we accept them gladly. If it’s our own candidate spinning the yarn, we adhere to the Fleetwood Mac strategy: “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.”

Iran recently used Photoshop to lie about a missile launch. China now admits faking its Olympics fireworks display, which seems a bit odd considering that fireworks would seem to be the last thing China would have to fake. What’s next–we find out the Giant Pandas are really Disney-style animatrons, or that the 360-member Mormon Tabernacle Choir is bulking up its performances with extra taped voices?

Still, even the fireworks deception is not a huge surprise. For one thing, China has long been known as a great place for fakes: Rolexes, designer clothing, DVDs, etc. For another thing, especially when it comes to the media, real just isn’t real enough.

While we overlook political falsehoods, we are more upset (and should be) because we all know the media lie (the problem is, we typically don’t know when). They may be lying now, in a sense, to make the presidential race appear closer than it is. Magazines airbrush every model, deleting acne and often enlarging breasts. National Geographic moved a pyramid, and CBS digitally dovered up an NBC logo with its own. (See a great range of such lies, with photo examples, here and here.) Smut peddlers use the same techniques to create fake pornographic images of movie stars and–more troubling from both ethical and legal perspectives–children.

But with the exception of the last example, one might ask, “so what?” After all, we are a nation of liars. We can’t seem to help ourselves. The biggest problem isn’t that people lie to us, in my view. A more serious problem is that we cannot recognize lying when we encounter it.

An excellent Columbia Journalism Review book review of Farhad Manjoo’s latest book, True Enough: How to Live in a Post-Fact Society, summarizes how Manjoo discovers and points out that thanks to “selective perception” we are largely incapable of distingishing truth from fiction. We all have our own “facts,” and we’re sticking to them.

That inability to discern truth from falsehood is perhaps the best reason for a liberal arts education, or at least a few classes in logic and media literacy. Since most Americans will get none of those, however, perhaps we should be thankful for the obvious prevalence of lying. As we increasingly encounter falsehood, recognizing that it comes from all angles, perhaps health skepticism will increase.

Trusting nothing is a start, better than trusting everything or better than trusting a select few media sources. Learning what to trust, and why, is a goal worth striving toward. No lie.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

McCain camp’s lie suggests early desperation

Posted by James McPherson on July 31, 2008

The John McCain-Karl Rove folks spent days telling us that Barack Obama changed his mind about visiting a military hospital because he could not take reporters. Right-wing media quickly began reinforcing the charge, despite a lack of any evidence to support it.

Tucker Knows-No Bounds, McCain’s primary spokesman, was spewing the same claim a couple of days ago. When pressed by a few reporters who saw fit to do their jobs and seek evidence, Bounds “provided three examples–none of which had alleged that Obama wanted to take members of the media to the hospital.” (Washington Post) In other words, the McCain camp spent days repeating a lie, then after all that time still could not find ONE shred of evidence to support what they’d been saying. But they didn’t stop there. They created a misleading commercial to reinforce the lie.

I view a lie as a bit different that a flip-flop, though both candidates have been guilty of too many flips. (See several examples of McCain’s flip-flops and misstatements in the videos below.) The latter might come from raised awareness, while the former simply reflects desperation or a craven indifference to both truth and the electoral process.

While Ben Stein and others may support such activities, they actually reveal a bit of desperation on McCain’s part. McCain, who criticized Obama for not visiting other countries while McCain did, then switched and criticized Obama for traveling abroad while McCain was at home, has no coherent message. As a result, he ends up running silly ads like the one that drew so much media attention yesterday for comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton–asking if he was “qualified to lead” while showing glowing images of Obama that show him apparently… er, leading. Doh! Even Rove, when asked about the ad in a Fox interview, called it “odd” and said he didn’t really understand it before quickly skipping to other issues, and sneaking in a sly reference suggesting yet again that the original McCain lie about the Obama troop visit was true. But even Andrea Mitchell–definitely no fan of Obama’s–points out that the lie is, in fact, a lie (see video here).

McCain apparently has gained a bit in the polls, but runs the risk that negative campaigning will alienate the less extreme (and fortunately for him, typically less informed) part of the electorate that traditionally has provided his base. He probably needs those folks, especially since many conservatives still don’t trust him. Rove knows that negative campaigning can reduce the overall turnout, though it seems a bit early for the GOP to consider that their only hope of victory.

Many gaffes are yet to come, and vice presidential candidates have yet to be named. Most voters aren’t yet paying close attention. Republicans can only hope that by convention time their candidate has come up with something better than a repeat of Bob Dole’s campaign against Bill Clinton.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Lying politicians

Posted by James McPherson on June 22, 2008

You may think that headline is the opposite of an oxymoron–so obvious as to be not worth stating. If so, you’re right; more on that in a moment.

David Brooks and others are beside themselves over Barack Obama’s change of heart–or lie–about accepting public financing. Of course, though I happen to think Brooks is a decent guy (and Slate magazine has called him “America’s one genuinely likable conservative”), he probably should be the last person to complain about inconsistency, based on his own record.

The point remains, however, that Obama flipflopped. He said he would accept public financing, then–when it was clear that he would raise a ton of money and be able to vastly outspend John McCain–Obama raise the spectre of conservative 527’s (think Swift Boats) expected to help McCain and declared that he would not accept it, after all. Personally, though I wish Obama hadn’t made the original pledge, I think a president who can change his mind when faced with new information is a good thing.

As several columnists and bloggers have noted, campaign financing is not the sort of issue that most voters are likely notice or care much about (especially this early in the campaign season). Brooks even suggests that the reversal indicates that Obama is “the most effectively political creature we’ve seen in decades” who boasts a necessary tough side that critics sometimes overlook: “Global affairs ain’t beanbag. If we’re going to have a president who is going to go toe to toe with the likes of Vladimir Putin, maybe it is better that he should have a ruthlessly opportunist Fast Eddie Obama lurking inside.”

McCain also has been crying foul, but of course he has flip-flopped on taxes and energy policy–two issues that voters do care about–and therefore has little room to complain. Besides, even if Obama “lied” (knowing that he would change positions if conditions changed), that merely puts him in good company. Almost all politicians lie (like most of the rest of us, for that matter). And presidents certainly do, as illustrated in Eric Alterman’s book When Presidents Lie, which my sister gave me for Christmas.

Alterman’s last chapter is titled “George Bush and the Post-Truth Presidency.” In fact, either Obama or McCain would have difficulty catching up with the lies of the current president, who seems bound to one day end up on this ignoble list.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »