Dan Balz's corrupted journalistic "balance"

The attempt to equate "character attacks" as coming from "both sides" in the campaign is not "balance"; it's just false.

Published October 9, 2008 7:41PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

The Washington Post's Dan Balz has an article today perfectly illustrating how the modern journalist's conception of "balance" leads them to distort the truth.  Balz's article is about the increasing use of "character attacks" in the presidential race, and rather than state the truth -- that the McCain/Palin ticket is now relying almost exclusively on some of the ugliest and most outright dangerous character smears seen in a modern presidential election -- Balz instead pretends that this is a phenomenon of which both sides are guilty in equal measure:

At a time when the nation needs inspiration and confidence-building, the two candidates running for president are trying to ensure that whoever ends up winning next month will be seen as unfit by a sizable portion of the population.

To see the two candidates in a pair of appearances here in Ohio over the past two days is to see John McCain and Barack Obama attacking each other not just because of their different visions and prescriptions for the problems the country is now facing, but going straight at each other over character, fitness and behavior.

Has Balz bothered to watch the news for the last week?  The rallies at John McCain and Sarah Palin's events are rabid, drooling lynch mobs spouting the most vile and extreme accusations against Barack Obama personally that can be imagined.  Here is what the AP report of the McCain/Palin event today in Ohio describes -- now a regular, daily feature of their events:

"We've all heard what he's said. But it's less clear what he's done, or what he will do," McCain told supporters in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

McCain's remarks about Obama were interrupted with shouts of "socialist," "terrorist" and "liar."

Just look at the videotapes of the angry, hateful hordes attending these rallies -- screaming that Obama is a socialist; that he's both a Muslim and a terrorist as proven by his "bloodline" and his name; that his supporters are "commie faggots"; that he's guilty of treason; underscored by increasing racial invective and even punctuated in one case by a call from an audience member for someone to be killed.  These aren't just isolated individuals; these sentiments are common at these rallies and becoming increasingly virulent and enraged -- at the rallies and otherwise:

A billboard in West Plains, Mo., showing a caricature of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama wearing a turban has caused quite a stir in town.

The sign, located south of West Plains on U.S. 63 across from the Dairy Queen, says: "Barack 'Hussein' Obama equals more abortions, same sex marriages, taxes, gun regulations."

And worst of all, all of this rage and this innuendo is taking place in the most volatile climate of all -- one of severe economic distress and anxiety -- and these mobs are increasingly becoming convinced, because the Right and the McCain/Palin campaign is leading them to believe it, that this economic crisis is the fault of the black candidate -- Obama -- for making banks give mortgages to racial minorities.  As an email printed just now by Jonah Goldberg put it -- defending someone at a McCain/Palin rally today who screamed he was "very angry" at Obama the "socialist":

He, and the rest of the conservatives in this country are sick and tired of being taken for granted, having our money stolen by the government and given to lazy, ungrateful people who don't contribute or produce (or often, aren't even citizens) anything.

This is what happens when you stoke the fury and resentments of people looking for scapegoats and work them into a blind rage.  And they didn't just pop up and start believing this.  They're saying this because the core premise of the McCain/Palin campaign has become that Barack Hussein Obama is a Terrorist-sympathizer, being funded by secret Arab sources, who hates the military and the troops.   As McCain now asks in his most sinister tone in every speech: Who is the real Barack Obama?  As National Review's illustratively deranged Andy McCarthy put it:  " Someone is either a terrorist sympathizer or he isn't; someone is either disqualified as a terrorist sympathizer or he's qualified for public office."

Look at those videos linked above if you haven't seen them (this one, this one and this one).  Is there anything even remotely comparable taking place at Obama rallies?  Are the accusations against McCain even arguably similar to the Right's relentless and self-evidently dangerous depiction of Obama as a military-hating, subversive Muslim and Terrorist?  What do we do with Terrorists and traitors -- or, in the past, with those wanting to take over the U.S. with a secret socialist agenda?  We kill them.  If that's what Obama is, if that's what hordes of enraged right-wing mobs are becoming convinced of and having those passions stoked, then what should be done to Obama -- just merely defeat him in the presidential campaign?

Balz's own attempt to justify his even-handedness exposes the absurdity of what he's doing.  After cataloguing the McCain/Palin attacks on Obama, this is what Balz offers up to show how Fair and Objective he is:

Obama said the McCain plan would reward bad behavior by banks, enrich real estate speculators and cost the taxpayers a bundle. "It's a plan that would guarantee that you, the American taxpayers, would lose," he said.

He might have stopped there, since he had made clear his differences with McCain. But he went further, and his words sent a different and far more negative message to the audience. "I don't think we can afford that kind of erratic and uncertain leadership in these uncertain times," he said, adding, "We need a president we can trust in times of crisis" . . .

But in these last weeks of the campaign, Obama and McCain are going farther in their efforts to raise doubts about each other. McCain's code is to suggest something sinister about Obama, to say there is something lurking in his past that Americans should fear. Obama, by using the word "erratic" to describe his rival seems to suggest that he is in some way unstable and therefore unacceptable.

Saying that McCain has been "erratic" over the past couple of months is plainly true and, even if it weren't, it is a claim about McCain's behavior as a leader, as a candidate, and his ability to lead the country.  By obvious contrast --as Balz himself says -- "McCain's code is to suggest something sinister about Obama, to say there is something lurking in his past that Americans should fear."  Those accusations exist in different universes.  Beyond that, 100% -- 100% -- of all McCain ads are now negative attacks on Obama, while only 1/3 of Obama ads entail negative attacks on McCain.

Everyone can see with their own eyes:  over the last two weeks, we have witnessed some of the ugliest and most dangerous attacks by any presidential campaign that one can recall -- not from surrogates or from shadowy groups but from the candidates themselves and their campaign.  The most hated, despised thing one can be in the U.S. is a "terrorist," followed closely by "traitor" and, in many circles, "Muslim."  The McCain/Palin ticket's prime strategy now is to win by scaring Americans into believing that Obama -- the first black candidate with a viable chance to become President in our country's history -- is all of those things.  There just is nothing comparable to that.  

Honest journalists will describe that fact.  Cowardly ones for whom "balance" subordinates truth because it insulates them from charges of "bias" will do what Balz just did.


UPDATE:  From an Agence France Presse wire story today:

Inflammatory Republican rallies raise concerns

WAUKESHA, Wisconsin (AFP) - Shouts of "terrorist" and "treason" aimed at Barack Obama have echoed around Republican rallies, whipping up into alarming, hate-filled frenzies against the Democratic White House hopeful.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain has taken to asking, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" at rallies this week, leading one supporter in Pennsylvania, a blue-collar battleground state to shout back, "he is a bomb."

Chants of "Nobama, Nobama" mingled with cries of "terrorist," as one banner in the crowd declared: "Go ahead, let the dogs out."

Journalistic attempts to create false equivalencies where none exists -- such as Balz's article today -- are, in general, dishonest.  But when it comes to describing what the McCain/Palin campaign is doing in particular, the attempt to create equivalency ("they're both going negative") suppresses a vital truth and is also irresponsible in the extreme.  For reasons persuasively set forth here, these tactics are highly unlikely to help McCain win, but they could quite possibly have far-reaching consequences independent of the election outcome.


UPDATE II:   McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott just received the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence and, in accepting the award, gave an absolutely superb speech on the ills of the modern journalist, which is well worth reading in its entirety (h/t reader EC).   But this passage -- on the modern journalist's perverse notion of "balance" -- is particularly relevant to the point here:

That brings me to may last point: Relying on The Times, or McClatchy or any other news source, for all the truth is dumb, but it's infinitely preferable to the pernicious philosophical notions that there is no such thing as truth, that truth is relative, or that, as some journalists seem to believe, it can be found midway between the two opposing poles of any argument. . . .

Does the truth lie halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or between communism and democracy? If you quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Winston Churchill, in other words, must you then give equal time and credence to Hitler and Joseph Goebbels? If you write an article that's critical of John McCain, are you then obligated to devote an identical number of words to criticism of Barack Obama, and vice versa?

Dan Balz -- along with most of his colleagues -- obviously believes the answer to those questions is "yes," and as much as anything else, that (as I've written about many times before) is what explains why the bulk of modern journalism has become so worthless and corrupted.

By Glenn Greenwald

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