02/07/2007 03:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Cut the Bull-Shtick!

We're living in a golden age of bull-shtick.

I'm not referring to simple lies, or even your run-of-the-mill b.s. I'm talking about b.s. which the b.s.-er must KNOW is b.s. yet continues to pretend is true, no matter how absurd their position may appear - hence, the shtick.

There's perhaps no better example of this than the recent story published by Insight magazine under the headline:

Hillary's team has questions about Obama's Muslim background

Are the American people ready for an elected president who was educated in a Madrassa as a young boy and has not been forthcoming about his Muslim heritage? This is the question Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's camp is asking about Sen. Barack Obama.

Let's set aside for the moment that both CNN and ABC quickly did some actual reporting which debunked the article's claim that Obama "spent at least four years in a so-called Madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia". Did anyone writing this story - or subsequently blathering about it - genuinely buy the implication that Obama was some kind of Manchurian (Indonesian?) Candidate, inculcated in radical Muslim teachings at the age of six? Or that, if Hillary Clinton's team were honestly trying to spread this explosive allegation, they would entrust the breaking of said bombshell to an outlet of as dubious objectivity as the conservative Washington-Times-affiliated Insight?

I suppose Obama should take it as a compliment that a cooked-up smear emerged so quickly after he announced his intention to run for president. Apparently in the last two years, experts have found a way to make Swift-Boaters even swifter. Yet the inherent unlikeliness of this item didn't stop the media's perpetual yammering machines - most notably Fox News' Steve Doocy and John Gibson -- from indulging in bull-shtick, treating this hooey as if it were of grave concern and leaving the impression that Barack Hussein Obama (nudge nudge) may be a ticking time bomb poised to unleash a jihad the moment he becomes president. I'm giving Doocy and Gibson the benefit of the doubt here by assuming that they are bright enough to have smelled the story's pungent bullshittiness, yet dove in head-first and wallowed in it anyway. Why should the truth matter when you have the opportunity to slime two Democratic contenders simultaneously?

When John Kerry made his infamous remark that, if you don't do your homework and study hard, "you get stuck in Iraq", anyone with a speck of knowledge about the man and/or proper joke construction knew immediately that he'd bungled the delivery of a fairly lame dig at George W. Bush's intelligence. We're talking John Kerry here, the anti-Youngman. If the man tried to tell a knock-knock joke, it'd probably go something like this: "Knock, knock, this is Senator John Kerry. Can I come in and discuss foreign policy?" Yet, for days, we were subjected to disingenuous indignation that Kerry had gone out of his way to insult our brave troops in Iraq, all from people who HAD to comprehend what really happened but chose to ignore the obvious.

In the same vein, when Senator Barbara Boxer, in questioning Condoleezza Rice, pointed out that neither she nor the Secretary of State have any immediate family members who would "pay the price" of serving in Iraq, it was seized upon and distorted as an attack on Rice for being childless, with White House press secretary Tony Snow asserting that this statement marked a "great leap backward for feminism". Tony Snow understands English. He knows that Boxer included herself in the subset of those who wouldn't pay a personal price in the war. Did this mean that Boxer was also somehow attacking herself, a mother and grandmother, for being childless? Who cares? When there's potential advantage to be gained, just trot out the bull-shtick and hope at least some of your audience will swallow your spin.

Okay, I know politics is a rough game, and politicians, on what I'm sure are very rare occasions, fib. But this phenomenon spreads well beyond the political realm. Take last fall's pseudo-controversy over Faith Hill's "outraged" on-camera reaction upon losing a Country Music Association award. This was clearly a joke on the "loser-cams" which are fixed on all award-show nominees to catch their pained expressions as someone else snags the award. Hill's over-the-top "What???" was unmistakably a gag - "You want a reaction shot? I got your reaction shot right here!" -- which would have immediately apparent had the miffed celeb been, say, Jim Carrey.

Even as benign a pop-culture icon as "Jeopardy!" mega-champ Ken Jennings can't escape this treatment. Last July, Jennings posted a satirical "Dear Jeopardy!" letter on his blog, offering his tongue-in-cheek suggestions of ways to improve the venerable quiz show, such as adding categories like "Skanks from Reality TV Who Got Naked in Men's Magazines", threatening the contestants with angry bees, or having Alex Trebek sign off each episode by saying "Legalize cannabis." (Technically, this wouldn't be Alex Trebek but, as Jennings informed us, the Trebektron 4000 robot which had replaced the real host after his death in a fiery truck crash.) The piece's intent would be evident to anyone whose funny bone hadn't been surgically removed, but several days later, New York Post entertainment writer Michael Starr took quotes out of context for an article titled "Gift Horse, Meet Ken Jennings". Was Starr genuinely that clueless, that bereft of humor, or did he purposely and cynically play a game of "gotcha", even though his accusations were as substantial as meringue? Regardless of Starr's motives, his reinterpretation of Mr. Jennings as a "sore winner" spread swiftly through the mediocracy, which is getting more mediocre every day. Didn't those who parroted the story in other outlets feel some minimal obligation to check out the original post? Or are research and reading too last-century?

It's no bulletin that we live in a world in which we're lied to every day, on issues as large as world peace and as small as whether some huckster's modified lawnchair will give you amazing abs (in just minutes a day!). O.J. Simpson can threaten to release a book titled "IF I Did It". Reverend Ted Haggard can claim that, well, yes, he did buy crystal meth, but he threw it away immediately. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake can assert that their Super Bowl scandal was a mere "wardrobe malfunction", as if it's only natural that Ms. Jackson would have Elmer's-glued a silver sunburst medallion to her areola underneath a flimsily Velcroed chestpiece. Doesn't every woman?

Precisely how dumb do they think we are? Are the bull-shtickers getting more brazen or just more sloppy? Or don't they even care if we see through them? "I know you know I'm lying. And I know you know I know you know. But just try and stop me."

It's the corrosive long-term effect of bull-shticking that seems worth pondering. As Aesop and Bart Simpson have taught us, if you keep turning everything into a phony scandal, you'll have blown your credibility when you try to report something of genuine significance. Heck, even the National Enquirer breaks a real news story once in a while to maintain some level of journalistic integrity.

Maybe I should feel grateful when fabrications are so easy to spot, since it's the really GOOD liars we need to beware. I took some comfort in watching Scott McClellan wriggle through his daily briefings, because you could sense his agony as he struggled to concoct tortured rationales for particularly incoherent administration positions. Tony Snow is too slick and practiced to be tripped up so easily. Arguably Bill Clinton's most damaging act in office was to state so emphatically that he did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky, thereby calling into question the veracity of every other declaration he made with similar conviction.

I once had a boss whom I had caught in out-and-out lies, if not legally fraud. As I sat in his office while he tried to explain away what he had done, offering transparently false scenarios in order to excuse his behavior, I found myself falling silent and just letting his words wash over me. Either he thought he was getting away with it, he thought I was an idiot or he realized that the one thing he could never do was admit the truth.

Whatever the case, I'd seen through the bull-shtick. And I could never trust a single word he said ever again.