Monday, August 24, 2009

About That Crazy 1

Ezra Klein, in an interesting but guarded piece, takes Jon Stewart to task for interviewing health care fabulist Betsy McCaughey, thus giving her more publicity. Ezra:
Stewart wanted to embarrass her, and some even thought he did. But what he really did was secure her a forum. Viewers saw a segment asking whether health-care reform will kill their grandmothers. Maybe they agreed that Stewart effectively debunked the claims. But more likely, they wondered how good a bill could be if there literally had to be an argument over whether or not it would kill grandma.
As some of his commenters point out, Klein is perhaps in an awkward position here because, as Matt Yglesias has been pointing out in a continuing campaign, the WaPo has done a terrible job dealing with this and other issues. Or, as Matt calls it, "the casual contempt for the truth and for their readers that is the hallmark of their approach to journalism."

Klein says that what's needed is "not reporting — or at least not focusing, day after day — on the lies." That might have been a good suggestion back in 1994, when McCaughey's New Republic article introduced nonsense into the health care discussion. In 1994, perhaps, if the New Republic had passed on her article, the crazy is stopped right there. Certainly in 1974, that would have been the case.

But it's not 1974 or 1994, and the problem (that is, the source of the nonsense) isn't Betsy McCaughey; it's Sarah Palin, the most recent nominee for Vice President of the Republican Party, and Michael Steele, the Chair of the RNC. It is simply not possible for neutral newspapers to ignore the comments of such people, and still function as neutral. Moreover, both parties now have their own information streams that can transmit stories directly to partisans without the interference of the mainstream media, so that even while those who do care about their reputations outside of the party faithful might be shamed into better behavior, they also have to exist within the party bubble.

Basically, if a party wants to embrace the crazy, there's not a whole lot that the Washington Post and the New York Times can do to keep members of that party well-informed. Nor is there a lot the other party can do. In this case, both the Democrats and the mainstream media are mostly doing what they can, but the key variable here is the actions of Republican leaders, and if they think it's in their interest to embrace the crazy (or, in some cases, if they're a bit nutty themselves), then the result is going to be that those who watch Fox News and listen to Rush are going to believe it. About the best thing everyone else can do is to remember that it's not really a big deal if a whole bunch of people who watch Fox News and listen to Rush believe crazy things about a bill they were going to oppose anyway.

But it certainly is interesting, and perhaps important, that Republicans have chosen this particular way to go. I'll have more on that in a bit.

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