Russert should debunk nonsense, not repeat it

"Meet the Press" host repeats bogus line about Obama and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Published April 21, 2008 2:00PM (EDT)

A top advisor to John McCain recently described his sense of what the media's role should be in the presidential campaign -- the press, the advisor said, should "play referee on what is a bogus claim and what isn't."

That sounds about right. Clearly, news outlets have broader responsibilities, but at a minimum, journalists should help the public differentiate between fact and fiction, myth and reality. When high-profile media personalities do the opposite -- repeat bogus claims that are demonstrably false -- they fail on two levels: They're misleading the public and neglecting to "play referee on what is a bogus claim and what isn't."

Consider Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," who Sunday asked Obama strategist David Axelrod about "Barack Obama with his hands clasped in front of him rather than holding his heart during the pledge of allegiance." That, of course, never happened, right-wing e-mail chains notwithstanding.

As Josh Marshall noted, "With his supposedly crack research staff, how does Russert manage to make a mistake like that? Where's the retraction and apology? Or is it intentional?"

I'd really hoped we were past this nonsense by now, but if the D.C. bureau chief for NBC News still doesn't understand reality, then chances are, there are plenty of Americans who are confused, too. So, once again, it's not true.

During the pledge, Obama recites it with his hand over his heart. During the national anthem, he sings. The U.S. Code makes it optional: "We spoke with Anne Garside, director of communication for the Maryland Historical Society -- home of the original manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and asked if anyone could be punished for not placing their hands over their hearts during the national anthem. She quickly replied, 'Oh, of course not,' adding that 'there is no obligation to put your hand over your heart.' Garside told us she has been asked numerous times about this rumor and finds the controversy to have 'gotten a little bit ridiculous.'"

Garside made that comment in January. It's even more ridiculous now, and even more ridiculous still that the host of the highest-rated Sunday-morning public affairs show is still screwing it up.

By Steve Benen

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