Recently, though, for the price of a lox and bagel and a Diet Coke, I agreed to submit to niemanwatchdog.org, a website of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University -- which, believe me, is as close to Harvard as I'll ever get. What a high honor to work for free for an institution with an endowment larger than the Gross Domestic Product of Portugal.
The gig is irresistible, however. It's a blog/column -- let's say a blolumn -- on questions journalists should ask. This fits snugly with my other area of major employment, as co-host of NPR's "On the Media." But my first post also concerns advertising -- namely political advertising. So instead of just linking to it, I re-post it here:
George W. Bush, the president of the United States, is a liar.
So is John Kerry. So are virtually every sitting governor and member of Congress.
I say this not in the sense of some tired truism -- "Those politicians are all such liars." -- but actually as a demonstrable fact. Never mind their conduct in public office (don't get me started), but during their campaigns to attain office they all release press material and run advertising that, in varying degrees of cunning, misrepresents their opponents record and/or policy positions. Under the benign-sounding rubric "opposition research," political consultants gather nominal facts -- mainly legislative votes presented out of context -- and arrange them for maximum damage.
These "facts" are then superimposed on unflattering black-and-white footage in super slow motion, leaving the impression not only that the opponent's values are out of the mainstream, but that he is actually Satan.
Which, much of the time, is an exaggeration.
Don't think I'm claiming some sort of special insight or revelation. The sleaziness of political attack advertising is documented every cycle in staggering detail -- and now very nearly in real time, as such organizations as FactCheck.org evaluate the claims of each ad upon its release. For instance, in 2004, the president's advertising misrepresented Kerry's record and stated positions on defense and intelligence spending, health care, the Iraq war and – predictably – taxation:
"Some people have wacky ideas," opened a Bush ad, filled with archival images of crackpot inventions. "Like taxing gasoline more so people drive less. That's John Kerry. He supported a 50¢ a gallon gas tax. ... Raising taxes is a habit of Kerry's. He supported higher gasoline taxes 11 times. Maybe John Kerry just doesn't understand what his ideas mean to the rest of us."
Or maybe the president didn't understand what 11 means. Nine of those 11, according to FactCheck.org, were either procedural votes on the very same 4.3¢ per gallon increase or on subsequent attempts to repeal it. One was a later vote to leave all existing gas taxes unchanged. And one was his 50¢ proposal -- something Kerry mentioned exactly once, 10 years ago, in a newspaper article. Someone, however, had proposed such a wacky idea: Gregory Mankiw, later to be chairman of Bush's council of economic advisors.
It's not easy twisting and distorting facts this way. It takes a lot of effort and imagination. Bush's campaign was so busy doing mash-ups of Kerry's Senate record it had to rely on 527-group proxies from Swiftboat Veterans for Truth to accuse the Democrat of treason.
Kerry's people, of course, were busy, too. "Now," the narrator declared in a one Kerry-Edwards spot, "Bush has a plan that cuts Social Security benefits by 30 to 45%. The real Bush Agenda? Cutting Social Security." Quite alarming, were it accuarate. In fact, Bush had proposed no such plan, and vowed not to cut benefits. Even under his eventual Social Security privatization plan, curbs on benefit growth would have been decades away. Which John Kerry well understood when he released the ad.
Liar, liar. Pants on fire.
The beauty of these attacks, moreover, is that they can be made with near impunity, because the sleazebags who fashion them know that the truth is far more complicated than the lie and that the public has neither the sophistication nor the attention span to sort it all out. Yes, FactCheck.org and the other truth squadders are doing God's work, but who, exactly, is paying attention to the truth squadders? The best we can hope for in most cases is that the wronged candidate uses truth-squad findings to retaliate, except often enough the findings then get distorted, used out of context and blown out of proportion, too.
So, no, journalism doesn't necessarily offer an antidote. But it might offer a vaccine.
What if every boy and girl on every bus asked every candidate the following question: "Do you promise, on behalf of your entire campaign organization, not to lie or misrepresent your opponent's record and positions on the stump, in your press materials or in your advertising? Yes or no."
This is different from vague vows to run clean, "positive" campaigns -- assertions that leave all sort of room for equivocation. The answer to a yes or no question is not only unequivocal, it's highly portable. Every trespass can be documented and juxtaposed -- by the opponent or the media -- with the original pledge. And every candidate will have the same threat hanging over his head, from Pinochio to John McCain. The Straight Talk Express will be like that bus in "Speed." Take your foot off the truth gas, and the whole thing explodes.
Call it The Oath, and make it the first question asked. At a minimum, it could lead to lots of juicy stories about dissembling and hypocrisy. And, ideally, it could render those stories obsolete.