One of the more interesting Republican strategies is saying things whose opposite is true. They say that the Democratic nominee is bought off by special interests, the Democrats are outspending them, the Democrats are playing dirty, the Democrats don’t care about homeland security, the Democrats hate America, all when this is far more true of the Republicans. They say Joseph McCarthy was a noble man, the media has a liberal bias, affirmative action is bad for equality, Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and Ronald Reagan was our greatest President, all when the opposite is far more true.

At first glance this seems bizarre — why draw attention to your weaknesses? But it’s actually a very clever use of the media. The media tries hard to be “fair and balanced”, and it generally believes the best way to do this is to present the opinions from both sides and make as few judgement calls as possible (to avoid introducing their own bias). And if there’s a debate on some issue, taking a side is seen as a judgement call.

On an issue for which there’s little or no disagreement (say, the color of the sky) reporters see no problem with treating this as fact. They’ll happily slip it into the relevant articles: “President Bush, standing against a backdrop of the blue-colored sky, announced his new plan for the environment.” But if Republicans begin insisting that the sky is purple, the issue becomes less clear. At first, of course, the idea will seem ludicrous. But the Republicans will find experts to swear up and down that the sky is purple, and funny anecdotes about purple-colored skies, and have the Weekly Standard and Fox News repeatedly note that the sky is purple until it becomes an issue of debate. And soon enough the journalists begin writing “President Bush announced his new plan for the environment. ‘The sky was blue,’ claimed DNC chairman Terry McAulife, but prominent scientists repeatedly insisted that the sky was, in fact, purple.”

Now this seems a bit silly in the case of the color of the sky, but take something like “global warming”. Most journalists don’t know enough to evaluate whether global warming exists or not, and I haven’t spent the time to do so either. But I’ve heard that among the serious scientific community, global warming’s existence is simply a fact. Yet Republicans have spent a lot of money and time bringing this fact into question, so that no reporter can safely state that global warming exists, without covering the other side.

And once the reporters begin showing both sides, the populace begins getting confused too. “Who knows,” they think, “the sky may really be purple.” And so they begin believing the line of their affiliated party. Democrats start insisting that the sky is blue, and Republicans strongly believe that it is purple. And those in the middle just assume that the truth is “somewhere in the middle”, even when it most assuredly is not.

So this is the Republican strategy: to neutralize their weaknesses by making them seem like matters of public debate. You can’t come out and say the Republicans are bought and paid for by the special interests, because the Republicans swear up and down that the Democrats are! Just imagine if Ed Gillespie, the RNC Chairman who’s often saying these absurd things, was around in the days of the Civil War:

Abraham Lincoln wants to throw the American people into slavery. By taking away our hard-earned property, he takes away our basic human rights. Why does Abraham Lincoln hate America? Why does he want to destroy our great nation by taking away our right to own slaves — a right enshrined in that most American of documents, the Constitution?

The Constitution says we are all made equal. That we should all be given an equal chance to make the best of our lives. But Abraham Lincoln wants to raise some Americans — those stupid, illiterate, negroes — above everyone else, by handing out their freedom to them. Since the founding of our country, slaves could buy their freedom, earning it through hard work, but now Lincoln wants to bypass all that and give it to slaves for nothing!

You get the idea. Now few would readily claim that ending slavery took away human rights and equality, but through this bizarro-world reasoning — the same reasoning that makes affirmative action bad for equality, and liberals hate America — it’s easy to make it seem like these are still issues of debate. And as long as a thinking press believes that fairness means repeating everyones lies equally, this nonsense will continue to be spread.

So here’s my question: how do you stop this stuff?

posted February 17, 2004 07:22 PM (Politics) (21 comments) #


The Furious Rise of the Anonymous Writer
Nader’s Negligence
Campaign Finance Reform: The Problem and Solution
Third Parties: Why They Spoil and How to Stop It
Gerrymandering: How Politicians Steal Votes and You Can Return Them
Up is Down: How Stating the False Hides the True
Down is Up: What This Stuff Is
Up With Facts: Finding the Truth in WikiCourt
San Francisco Protects the Freedom to Marry
Sue for Freedom: Saving Steamboat Roy
Shorter Tom DeLay


“How do you stop this stuff?”

Dismiss the myth of neutrality in the media: Close (and reopen) journalism schools, treasure bias and opinion, educate people (in a way they are not educated now), get the news reporters out of bed with the newsmakers, encourage the critical role of media (no matter who the authority is).

Of course, this is all easier said than done…

posted by jazer at February 17, 2004 08:17 PM #

The media is neutral? They try and represent both sides equally and fairly? Come on, you can’t possible believe that. The only person in the media I know of that does this is O’Reilly.

Both parties need to quit stretching the truth. The Democrats are saying that 200 million jobs were lost under the Bush administration, implying that his administration is the cause. They conveniently left out the fact that the economy took a dive during the end of the Clinton administration (Bush inherited it) and the impact of 911. They also leave out that the economy is recovering and GDP is up 8.5%.

The media is doing the same. You call that fair and neutral?

Incidentally, I was listening to a news program on the radio the other day. The guest was a liberal mayor from NY. He got started a discussion blaming the Republicans for the corruption in corporate America. When asked why, he stated that they were to blame for the laws that let corporations get away with the corruption. He claimed that this was because we had had Republican Presidents the majority of the time over the past twenty years.

The talk show host, who was a liberal by the way, pointed out that Presidents don’t make laws, Congress does. And furthermore, we’ve had a Democratic Congress for the majority of the past twenty years and they’ve been the ones putting the laws into place. Hmm.

The Mayor quickly changed the subject. How convenient. How Democratic.

posted by truthintruth at February 17, 2004 09:03 PM #

Aaron, why do you pretend this has anything to do with Republicans? Have you actually not listened to the lies of people like McAuliffe and Dean and Rangel and Daschle, or do you just think they are telling the truth?

If the latter, then you’re essentially saying, “I agree with the Democrats and not the Republicans,” which makes this just about the most uninteresting political article I’ve ever read.

If you can’t see that both sides do the exact same thing, then you need to open up your eyes a little bit more. Start by realizing Lincoln was a Republican, and the Democrats at the time did say those sorts of things about Lincoln.

Then move on to realizing it’s the Democrats who have been spending most of their time attacking Bush recently. I won’t defend the campaign ad Bush made against Kerry, but this was after months of the Democrats outspending (this actually is a fact, sorry) the Republicans recently, attacking Bush at every turn, and getting all the media coverage for it, with little debate.

For example, it’s was stated as fact by many prominent Democrats, including Terry McAuliffe, that Bush was AWOL. This has proven to be false (not that there aren’t still questions about what he was doing, but it’s proven he was not AWOL, and none of them apologized, and some of them kept insisting it was still true, or possible).

Most of the Democratic candidates blamed Bush for causing the recession, despite it being caused by factors clearly out of his control (it began less than two months after he took office, not that he couldn’t have done more to fix it after it took hold).

You see where this is heading? Maybe you believe some of those things, or that they are only slight misrepresentations but represent an essential truth that is more important. Whatever the case, you’re seeing these things through your own shaded glasses, and then passing it off as though one side is bad and the other isn’t, which is what you’re complaining the Republicans are doing.

I am not in favor of this style of campaigning, but to pretend — or not recognize — that it comes from both sides is just boring.

I have a degree in journalism, and I know there’s problems with the media. I know there is a primarily liberal bent (better word than bias) amongst reporters on TV and in print, but that in talk shows on TV and radio, the bent is primarily conservative; because of the nature of talk radio (opinion-oriented), we obviously get a lot more conservative opinions out there in the mainstream media.

But the real bias in the mainstream news media is scandal, is “gotcha” stories. It’s ignoring facts, using unreliable sources, and bending stories to make people look bad, whoever they are, if they think that readers will be interested in it. And both parties take advantage of this as much as they can.

BTW, truthintruth, it is 2-3 million jobs, not 200 million. :-) 200 million jobs … damn, there’s not even 300 million people in the whole country.

posted by pudge at February 17, 2004 09:37 PM #

Funny, I only hear conservatives claim that O’Reilly is unbiased, Why is that? Because Rush says he is.

Any journalist worthy of the name TRIES to present events in an objective manner. Unfortunaty for NECK-CAR DAD, you must have a facility with the languange to become a journalist requiring a breath of experience beyond Fox News and Clear Channel. And more than an eighth grade education. Read a freekin’s book once in a while. Maybe universities are bastions of the left because smarter people know more, cuz they read more, and study more, and think more and question the conventional wisdom (which is never conventional and seldom wise).

Sure, call me an elitist lefty. That’s another tactic of the right when they can’t argue the facts……..

posted by Mark Adams at February 17, 2004 09:58 PM #

Any journalist worthy of the name will realize that they cannot possibly be objective, and they won’t pretend they are.

posted by jazer at February 18, 2004 12:14 AM #

If you want to change the situation, just make everything open. The media has lost its credibility, just does not know it, yet. They need to start reporting with as much information as possible. I would like to see statements backed by phone numbers, web pages and reference articles. Where the news will be converted into facts and will sound much less action and popous. Life is gray and dull most of the time. So should be the news! It is not an action flick, like they try to sell it is. You should be pondering on the color of the sky. You should be conducting your own research (an question everything). The media is just one source, and sometimes not the best one. Although it could be!

posted by gabe at February 18, 2004 07:36 AM #

I agree with Chomsky’s idea, that the media generally supports whatever powerful institutions exist. Not just (say) the president, but also corporations, or major churches, or whatever.

posted by Lion Kimbro at February 18, 2004 01:10 PM #

Ralph Nader said something quite interesting at the Media Reform Conference in Madison, Wisconsin in November: “We have far more information given [to] us by the mass media than we are using.” “Many [stories, investigative reports] are not followed up by citizen groups that would deal with that because they are overwhelmed.” I tend to agree with Nader in the sense that there is a lot of information out there, for any ‘interested party’ – and that includes not just the voters and citizens of the U.S. - to see. As much as I don’t need any convincing that the corporate media are throttling debate behind a blanket of simplistic and misleading soundbites, I’m shying away from the notion of conspiracy. There’s nothing but a dull profit motive behind the current media landscape in the US, folks. That’s all. I do not worried that my fellow readers and listeners on this site or elsewhere might fall into the trap of mis-information more easily than myself.

posted by thorolf at February 18, 2004 05:22 PM #

Just something I thought I would point out. The RNC would never say those things about Abraham Lincoln seeing he was a republican. It is amazing how the party that was partly founded on fighting slavery is portrayed as pro-slavery.

posted by Chris Kraft at February 18, 2004 10:27 PM #

From “Paul Krugman and Lies” stories/storyReader$404

“If the Republicans said the earth is flat, Fox News would report (he says) The Earth is Flat, and people who say it isn’t are unpatriotic. Then he says the other press would report Shape of the Planet: Two Sides to the Debate, and would quote Republicans saying it’s flat, and Democrats saying it’s round.”

posted by Seth Finkelstein at February 18, 2004 10:45 PM #

All too true. Which part? Why, the part I agree with, of course. Frankly, in this era of communication, media figures seem to spend as much time muddying the water as clearing it. Why is that? Because otherwise we’d have nothing to make us look at the advertising accompanying their “news”. Ok. I’m all right with that. Everyone tries to make a profit, after all. But why not take “news” a step further, and provide sources, documentation and real information for any opinion ventured, even if the opinion reported was not your own? If the source of that opinion you just conveyed to the public is unable or unwilling to substantiate the basis of their claim, WHY ARE YOU GIVING IT EXPOSURE? The fact is, none of us these days have time to sift through a mountain of data in order to determine the veracity of claims. Therefore we trust. We give loyalty and allegiance to those we know share our core beliefs. How do we know they share them? Because they said they do. Let’s just examine the record here, instead of dragging Abe out of the closet and pushing the race button. Of incumbent Republican presidents, how many are on record as lying about matters of state? Democrats?
Is there a real difference between parties? What makes you think that corporate alliances would not shift in a heartbeat to support the projected winner, whether Dem or Rep? Don’t those alliances really determine the politician’s “culture”, and predict the scope of their actions in response to stimuli? Remember, the expansion needs of “corporate” culture were historically responsible for the British Empire, for the Spanish Inquisition, for World War I and II. And I can substantiate those claims. Go to your favorite history book and look up WHY each of those conflicts began. In each case, an expansion of resource base was perceived as critical for the economic engine backing the particular governing body. What power blocs have offered their support to Kerry lately?

posted by Barnes at February 19, 2004 08:21 AM #

Related in Wired today: Scientists: Bush distorts science. “The Bush administration has distorted scientific fact leading to policy decisions on the environment, health, biomedical research and nuclear weaponry, a group of about 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, said in a statement on Wednesday.”

posted by mpt at February 19, 2004 08:21 AM #

If you’ve been following the Duke kerfuffle, you’d know that conservative Republicans are the best educated, followed closely by liberal Democrats, with moderate Democrats at the bottom as the least educated.

It takes a strong bias to write that first paragraph. And then to have it followed with commenters quoting Chomsky, Krugman, and Nader while attacking FoxNews, Clear Channel, Rush and O’Reilly.

That would be like me quoting the World Net Daily, the New York Post, Jonah Goldberg and Ann Coulter to “prove” that The Los Angeles Times and NBC news have slanted news coverage. Would you even be reading after the first line?

Here’s an idea. Go back into the news archives and try to find the first occasion of a Democrat complaining about the conservative bias of the media. It’s pretty recent. A brilliant piece of political strategy - copying what worked for the conservatives for 20 years.

posted by TheYeti at February 19, 2004 09:39 AM #

Pudge writes, “If you can’t see that both sides do the exact same thing, then you need to open up your eyes a little bit more.”

You’re going to need to provide more examples to persuade me of that, Pudge. You list only two.

Of those two, the first is still ongoing, since there are still many questions about Bush’s service. The investigation continues; let’s wait until we know more before writing the final chapter, OK?

And your second example is not a matter of fact, but opinion. One can clearly blame Bush for the recession that began — as Bush recently admitted — a month or two after he took office. Why can we assign this blame? Because, a month before he was sworn in, his Treasury Secretary and the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board got together over breakfast and they agreed that “the underlying economy was essentially solid” (Suskind, pp. 38-39, 46) and that was was coming up was “either an apparently mild recession or a pronounced inventory correction” (p. 57). But Bush’s blame-Clinton politics, his unrestrained rush into unwise tax cuts, and later his obsession with plunging the country into market-disrupting war all helped turn a mild recession into a nasty bottoming-out that, three years later, we still haven’t recovered from. These are the opinions of people who know a lot more about economics than you and I, so who are you to say they aren’t valid? In any case, I am sure you will be the first to admit that blaming Bush for the recession that officially started on his watch is an opinion, which can hardly be an example of a “lie.”

What else ya got?

posted by Jamie McCarthy at February 19, 2004 10:16 AM #

Jamie, congratulations. You have succeeded in convincing me that I cannot convince you that Bush isn’t to blame for starting the recession, the conditions for which were set in motion a year before it began, and many months before he was elected. Yay for you.

posted by pudge at February 19, 2004 05:21 PM #

Read Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum”. Brilliant instance of people who manufacture a tale by weaving historical facts together into a fantasy that makes sense but is not causally connected. It could be true but isn’t. In the book the weavers are taken down by their hubris.

Mediocre politicians/pundits like Terry McAuliffe/Rush Limbaugh yearn to win the Presidency so much they weave “facts” into fantasy all day long.

Sometimes they’re “lucky” enough to have bumbling dweebs like Michael Moore or misdirected intellects like Chomsky (Kimbro’s reference above to Chomsky’s bogus claim - “the media generally supports whatever powerful institutions exist.” Which of the 7,000 American weeklies and dailies is he generalizing about?) do it for them. (Sorry, the lefties come more trippingly to the tongue… there are as many or more twits on the righties’ side.)

posted by sbw at February 20, 2004 09:34 AM #


I noticed you left a little event out of your comments to pudge.

Something that happened in September of 2001, in the midst of that shallow recession.

Hard to miss that unless you’re intentionally cherry-picking your reasons.

The economy was terrible for staffing in 2000-2001. The bubble had broke, companies were pushing off their payments, and by July 2001, 30% of all temporary staffing companies shut their door. The others had large layoffs, and this was pre-September 11th.

While we may not be able to convince you, surely we can point out the unrestrained rush to bias your statements on the economy exhibit.

posted by TheYeti at February 20, 2004 11:30 AM #

Fact: There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Fact: President Bush mislead Congress, the American people and the world to fight an expanionist war that was concocted well before 9/11.

Fact: The economic recovery that Bush promised has not happened and his tax break for the richest has only made it worse.

Fact: The liberal media bias is a myth. Read Eric Alterman’s “What Liberal Media?” and you will see how this myth was constructed.

Fact: For all of the vilification of public intellectuals such as Chomsky, he is one of the worlds most respected linguists and political essaysts.

Fact: American civil liberties have taken a dive since Bush came to office. His agenda threatens the very democratic foundations of this country. Think Ashcroft and Patriot Act…

I could go on, but it’s worthless to do so as people will not take the time to really question themselves and what they stand for.

posted by Librepensador at March 7, 2004 12:54 AM #

“Fact: There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” Irrelevant. Fact: The UN team was charged to assure full Iraqi cooperation which was not forthcoming.

“Fact: President Bush mislead Congress, the American people and the world to fight an expanionist war that was concocted well before 9/11.” Fact: Bush knew what Congress knew. Key members of both parties saw the same reports.

“Fact: The economic recovery that Bush promised has not happened and his tax break for the richest has only made it worse.” Fact: The bottom two quintiles can’t get a tax break if they pay little income tax.

Fact: The liberal media bias is a myth. Read Eric Alterman’s “What Liberal Media?” and you will see how this myth was constructed. Fact: There are 1300 daily newspapers and 5000 weeklies and bias is bias whatever its stripe.

Fact: For all of the vilification of public intellectuals such as Chomsky, he is one of the worlds most respected linguists and political essaysts. Fact: Expertise in one field means nothing in another.

“Fact: American civil liberties have taken a dive since Bush came to office. His agenda threatens the very democratic foundations of this country. Think Ashcroft and Patriot Act…” Fact: I agree.

“I could go on, but it’s worthless to do so as people will not take the time to really question themselves and what they stand for.” Fact: I could go on, but it’s worthless to do so as people will not take the time to really question themselves and what they stand for.

posted by sbw at March 8, 2004 03:47 PM #

Dear SBW,

I find your article “Up is Down: How Stating the False Hides the True” to be very informative.

However, I think the strategies you list are far more true of the Democrats than of the Republicans.

Fair And Balanced

posted by Fair And Balanced at March 16, 2004 01:46 PM #

Dear Aaron,

I like your style. Your mother raised a boy that can think to some purpose. Personally I don’t think there is a nickels worth of difference between our current crop of Republicans and Democrats. Amusingly enough, I believe it will be sane republicans who elect Kerry. As far as what to do. I think we either float a third party or cut directly to revolution. Harsh, I know but both parties have been so corrupted as to be unredeemable. On the democratic side of things Dennis Kucinich is the only one running who has integrity on his side. It surprises me (somewhat) that no honest republicans have surfaced to challenge the madman in the white house. In the long run the situation may be self-correcting. When Fox News abandoned reporting in favor of jingoistic flag waving, the other networks felt they had to do the same. To a lesser degree. This homogenization and lack of ‘balance’ has in turn led to their former audiences beginning to abandon them in favor of alternatives, such as yourself. The audience, and their potential buying power, is what these networks sell to their sponsers. Who knows, maybe you can get Honda to sponser your site. :)

posted by krazykat at March 29, 2004 09:09 PM #

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