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Daily Howler: How should Democrats push back? Even our very brightest players don't seem to know how to respond
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NO ANSWERS! How should Democrats push back? Even our very brightest players don’t seem to know how to respond: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, AUGUST 28, 2009

How misinformation spreads/Dems at fault edition: Given our serial “triumphs of misinformation,” an obvious question arises:

How does misinformation spread?

Misinformation spreads on talk radio. It also spreads neighbor to neighbor. But then, misinformation sometimes spreads through our mainstream media. On Tuesday, the New York Times played its own gruesome role in the syndrome, when it published Kevin Sack’s remarkably ill-advised, front-page report about calm, reasoned Bob Collier. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/25/09. To read Sack’s report, just click here.)

Sack’s report involved such woeful bad judgment it deserves to be mentioned again.

Collier, you may recall, is a 62-year-old Georgia citizen who told his congressman, at a recent town meeting, that he fears his wife’s breast cancer treatment will be “rationed” (Sack’s paraphrase) if health reform passes. “She'd be on a waiting list,” Collier was quoted saying. These claims appeared on the Times’ front page. But uh-oh! Sack never warned readers that Collier, however sincere he may be, may not know what he’s talking about.

Instead, Sack almost seemed to vouch for Collier’s judgment. Collier speaks in a “calm” and “reasoned” voice, Sack wrote. He has “an almost solemn sense of the magnitude of the health care issue.” Before long, Collier was quoted explaining the stakes in the health care debate. “[T]he Vietnam War, which was a big deal in my early formative years, pales in comparison to the way this thing could turn our country,” he solemnly said.

Only later did Sack tell readers where Collier gets his “information.”

Good God. “The Colliers are committed conservatives,” Sack wrote. “They receive much of their information from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh’s radio program and Matt Drudge’s website.”

As Marc Cherbonnier quipped, right here on our campus: “At least he triple-checks facts!”

The New York Times showed astounding bad judgment in running this story on its front page. It’s important to report what citizens think; it’s important to report where they get their ideas. But when claims like these appear on page one, without words of caution, such claims get believed—and they spread. On page A10, that very same day, the Times ran a second report—a report which said that Collier is most likely full of old shoes. (This second report was based on assessments by policy experts.) But that second report was short—and buried. Collier’s claim about “waiting lists” appeared on page one—and the Times seemed to vouch for his judgment.

We have no doubt that Bob Collier’s sincere. But does he know what he’s talking about? Thanks to the woeful bad judgment off Sack and his editors, Collier was allowed to spread Rush Limbaugh’s “information” right out on page one.

That’s how misinformation spreads. That same night, Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer described yet another way.

Schultz appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show. Speaking with guest host Alison Stewart, she described another way misinformation triumphs. Schultz is married to Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s Democratic senator:

STEWART (8/25/09): Can you give us a sense of how this debate is playing out in your front yard?

SCHULTZ: Well, in Ohio, I get on average— This is not exaggerated. I have been counting because I’ve been trying to keep track. I get at least fifty e-mails a day that are those chain e-mails that have—it looks very official. And it has, section by section on all the health care proposals—and they’re all flat-out lies.

PolitiFact.com has done a wonderful job of showing just how badly-written these are. They’re not true, is basically what they’re showing. And my husband, the senator, got one earlier last week from an attorney who said, “Here’s why I’m afraid of this health care reform.”

My husband started to read a couple lines from it and I said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I can tell you exactly what that is.” And I got on PolitiFact.com and I showed him the e-mail.

Instantly, Stewart moved ahead to more pleasing fare—to conservative talk about Hitler and guns. We liberals get thrills up our legs from such fare. But Schultz’s story deserves more attention.

Three points:

How it spreads and triumphs: Schultz was describing one of the ways misinformation spreads. People get e-mails—and believe what they read! (People also believe the things they hear on talk radio.) If you doubt that, just watch some of the current congressional town hall meetings on C-Span! Citizens ask the wildest questions—questions which make it abundantly clear that they have swallowed ludicrous claims, from unspecified sources. In reply, members of congress may simply reinforce these false beliefs. (Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, can be seen doing this several times in C-Span’s tape of her Anchorage meeting.) Back to Schultz: Many people get those e-mails—and misinformation spreads.

Correcting misinformation is hard: Schultz praised PolitiFact for the “wonderful job” it has done. But correcting misinformation is hard. In our view, PolitiFact frequently bungles—sometimes in one direction, sometimes in the other. Last night, the site’s Bill Adair took part in a health reform fact-check on the NewsHour; we thought he offered several soft-headed analyses which titled in favor of reform. On the other hand, this PolitiFact post awards Howard Dean a flat-out “False” for saying this: “There’s no rationing in any of these bills.” In our view, that post’s analysis is very weak. Spreading misinformation is easy. Correcting it is hard.

By the way: How ridiculous is some of Bob Collier’s “information?” PolitiFact’s current headline says this: “Rush claims Obama wants to mandate circumcision.” Sorrowfully, just click here.

Concerning Senator Brown: Here at THE HOWLER, the gravel-voiced Brown is one of our favorite senators. Sorry, though: Every Democratic office-holder has played a role in the overall “triumph of misinformation.” Democrats have been murdered by disinformation campaigns over the past several decades; the party apparatus, and the career liberal world, have made no serious, organized attempt to confront this enormous problem. Schultz’s story—in which Brown helps his lawyer learn the truth—almost reads like a parody of this situation. (So too when this senator gets informed by his wife about the way this syndrome works.) This gigantic problem can’t be solved by informing one lawyer at a time. And we hate to break your tribal hearts, but Democratic leaders like Brown have made no attempt to confront this problem on a mass scale. No attempt at all. None.

Why are Democrats so bad at pushing back? What, if anything, can be done to counter ridiculous, blatant falsehoods? Last week, two of Rick Perlstein’s readers asked these very important questions.

But what’s the answer to those questions? We continue to wonder below.

Special report: How do we lose?

BE SURE TO READ EACH INSTALLMENT: How should liberals respond to “ridiculous falsehoods?” Why not enjoy each thrilling installment?

PART 1: Rick Perlstein’s readers just kept asking the world’s most important question. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/25/09.

PART 2: Two pundits couldn’t quite explain the rules of our cock-eyed discourse. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/26/09.

PART 3: Deja vus are widely observed as we gets our butts kicked—again. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/27/09.

Now, for our thrilling conclusion:

PART 4—NO ANSWERS: Will a serious health reform bill pass the Congress? It’s always possible, of course.

But fifteen years after the Clinton plan died, the Obama plan is in serious trouble—and a strong sense of deja vu rules the tale of its recent decline. In 1995, James Fallows said the Clinton plan’s defeat represented “a triumph of misinformation.” Fifteen years later, Obama’s plan has been pummeled by wild falsehoods too.

How much deja vu prevails? Betsy McCaughey was a central player way back then, inventing ludicrous claims about the Clinton plan. Fifteen years later, the unreal McCaughey has played the same role! She has come up with wild claims. Again!

As Melinda Heneberger said last week: “Now it looks like the same thing is happening all over again.” Henneberger was “astonished” by this. We’re not sure why she was.

This brings us back to those very good questions—the questions two liberals posed last week, in an on-line discussion at the Washington Post. (For the full discussion, click here.) One question came from someone in Boston—another from Derry, New Hampshire. Each worthy had seen Obama’s plan assailed by utterly ludicrous claims. They e-mailed excellent questions to historian Rick Perlstein (Nixonland), who had written a piece in the Post:

Boston, Mass.: Why do you suppose are the Democrats so bad at messaging and pushing back? I mean, the Republicans' way of using the same blunt talking points, repeating the same words over all interviews, is very effective. Are Democrats just really that much like a herd of cats? Or do they just not have someone to test out talking points? (For example, pushing back on "death panels" should have only ever have used the term "living wills.” Never should have used “end-of-life discussions.”)

Derry, N.H.: I thoroughly appreciate your article and its historical perspective on right-wing paranoia—both the way history is replaying itself and where it now differs. One critical aspect not covered, however, is what (if anything) can be done to counter such ridiculous and blatant falsehoods in what should be a patriotic dialog rather than a hysterical diatribe. As you noted, merely repeating the falsehoods and even branding them as such merely gives them more air time and greater credence with some. If you could suggest one way to take on this foolishness, what would it be?

The reader from Derry had a very good question: What can be done to counter the “ridiculous and blatant falsehoods” which are defeating Obama’s health plan? (The same sort of blatant falsehoods which defeated the Clinton health plan.) “If you could suggest one way to take on this foolishness, what would it be?”

But then, the Bostonian had a superb question too: Why are the Democrats so bad at messaging? So bad at pushing back? Why don’t Democrats already know how to repel such ridiculous falsehoods? Fifteen years later, how can it be that we’re going down the same way we went down before?

In short: How do we deal with the ludicrous claims which just keeps kicking our keisters?

We thought those questions were very strong—but we thought Rick’s answers were fairly weak. But then, Paul Krugman seemed to be puzzled, in Monday’s column, by the thought that Reagan-era messaging still carries the day in our politics. We’ll look at Krugman’s column next week. But in the past decade, Krugman has been our most brilliant player at the top of the mainstream press corps. We shudder to think how little we all would know if he hadn’t been there. (Example: See today’s column.)

Even Krugman seems puzzled by this syndrome? Before we look at what Rick said, let’s get clear on two basic points: Those readers from Boston and Derry were posing the world’s most important question. And none of us really seem to know the answer to their question.

That said, let’s look at Rick’s answers to those important questions.

Rick said some sensible things in his Q-and-A’s this day. (We’ll note one such statement below.) But how about his answer to the world’s most important question: What can liberals and Democrats do to counter ridiculous and blatant falsehoods? “If you could suggest one way to take on this foolishness, what would it be?” the Derry reader asked. You can see the full question above. This was Rick’s reply:

Rick Perlstein (answer to reader from Derry): I would address this to politicians: if something your constituent says sounds extreme or crazy to you, your allowed to not take it into account when making your politician decisions. (Too late for that when it comes to end-of-life care; politicians, some of them progressive, have already allowed themselves to be intimidated by that and took it out of the bill.) Even if lots and lots of people are saying things that are crazy, your responsibility as a public servant, if you believe in your heart of hearts that it's crazy, is simply to listen politely, and when it comes time to vote or negotiate, ignore it.

We strongly recommended Rick’s book last year. We strongly recommend it today. But that just wasn’t an answer at all. Politicians shouldn’t react to crazy statements? Surely, everyone would agree. But that isn’t what Derry asked.

But then, we were unimpressed with Rick’s reply to the Boston reader too. The Boston reader asked key questions: Why are we so bad at messaging? So bad at pushing back? For the full question, see above. This was Rick’s reply:

Rick Perlstein (answer to reader from Boston): Somewhere along the line Democrats lost a sense of their natural power base—which is the fact that their ideas are economically beneficial to the vast majority. Acknowledging this fact became "demagoguery." Conservatives convinced them it was "class warfare." They became afraid of their simplest and most powerful message. All the other timidity follows from that.

Don't blame the folks (including Republicans!) who put "end-of-life" provisions in the bill. The enemies of reform were going to find something to distort in the bill no matter what.

We damn-straight agree with that closing thought: Under the current rules of the road, it’s very easy to defeat our proposals. If they don’t defeat us with one form of nonsense (death panels!), they’ll just dream up something else. (The bill has too many pages!) Being a pseudo-conservative pundit is the easiest job in America; more on that fact next week. But Rick’s observation begs the reader’s question: Why is it so easy to defeat us with distortions this way? Why are Democrats so bad at pushing back?

We wouldn’t say Rick’s larger answer is “wrong,” but we would say it’s weak. For one thing, he gives Democratic leaders much more credit than we do. In our view, it has been a long time since Democrats—and career liberals—gave any sign that they were even attempting to win our messaging wars. Why are Democrats so bad at pushing back? Could it be because they don’t try?

Sorry. On the simplest level, people who won’t defend their party’s leaders against blatant and ridiculous falsehoods simply aren’t trying to win. Democratic leaders have been trashed in such ways for decades. As this happened, Democrats ran off and hid in the woods. (Sorry, but this included Senator Brown—and the late Senator Kennedy.) These Democrats faced one major problem: Career liberals at our liberal journals already had the best hiding spots!

How should Democrats (and liberals) push back? What kind of messaging should we adopt? We’ll discuss these questions next week. At present, though, we’ll offer this thought:

That is the world’s most important question. But even our very brightest players don’t seem to know how to respond.