10/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What the Political Press Can Learn From Historians About Lies and Truth

In a Sunday New York Times article entitled, "Let's Call a Lie a Lie . . . Finally," Patrick Healy ponders the reasons behind Barack Obama's hesitancy to call John McCain on his spate of lies that fill both his and his running mate's stump speeches and his campaign's television ads. "Politicians have long referred to 'lie' as 'the L word,'" Healy writes, "in part because using the word could itself create a distracting dust up . . . and partisanship can be so intense that lying, as a denunciation, has flattened into just another charge." Healy touches on a powerful insight: Our political discourse has become so cheapened and debased that even the most respected members of the political press, including the presidential debate moderators Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw, and Bob Schiefer, shun the role of "journalist" and refuse to differentiate for their fellow citizens, even in a pivotal election, lies from truth, fiction from fact.

Karl Rove and the George W. Bush campaign hurled lie after lie at Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, respectively, and now Rove's acolytes are doing the same thing for the McCain campaign in 2008. In the name of a faux "balance," our elite political press has become little more than a stenography service for the most outrageous lies and smears aimed at Barack Obama. No, Obama did not call for "sex education" in "kindergarten" as McCain's disgraceful political smear ad claims; nor did he receive any advice on the housing crisis from Frank Reines of Fannie Mae. Those are straight out lies.

While John McCain prattles on about "integrity" the press drops responsibility for setting the record straight. The McCain campaign apparently wishes to so cheapen the political discourse that millions of voters will not be able to tell fact from fiction. It's the same kind of bold lying Rove and Jerome Corsi (of "Obama Nation" fame) used in 2004 with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and the Bush administration used to propagandize the American people about non-existent "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, and Saddam's non-existent ties to Al Qaeda and 9-11. Even with Bush's phony "video news releases," the payola to favored commentators like Armstrong Williams, the planting of Jeff Gannon inside the White House press corps, and the Pentagon's sending out an army of "message force multipliers" to sell the Iraq war, the press insists on learning nothing from the past eight years.

With only weeks left before the most important presidential election in a generation, our Fourth Estate is once again enabling the Republican candidate to lie with impunity on the public's airwaves. Reporters are content to simply repeat McCain's lies, raise a few vapid questions about them, and then leave it to the Obama campaign to try to settle the score. They know the Republicans will just throw any charge by the Democrats back in their faces no matter how truthful, and then these esteemed "journalists" dutifully report the Republicans' counter smears, thereby compounding the initial lie. Regardless of the facts, the attitude of the mainstream press is: "Both parties lie so let's just call it a draw." In this rigged game Republicans win and Democrats lose.

You want proof of a double standard that cuts the Republicans' way? Okay, ask yourself this: What do you think the press coverage would be if Joe Biden had a pregnant teen-age daughter on stage with her boyfriend at the Democratic National Convention? Or if Barack Obama didn't know how many houses he owns? Or if Michelle Obama had once stolen prescription drugs from a charity she worked for?

In Healy's Times piece, he quotes a politics professor, Fred Greenstein, who states: "Cable TV and the Internet have contributed to a really polarized system where each side sees the other side lying almost as a matter of course. . . . As a result, civility breaks down and the euphemisms [for lying] fade into outright accusations of lying -- which can be refreshingly honest, in fact, since each side does truly see the other side as lying." What's terribly wrong with Greenstein's assessment here is that it repeats the falsehood that whether or not a campaign or a candidate is lying or telling the truth can only be found in the eye of the beholder. This false premise -- that both sides lie equally and it is all just a matter of perception -- is precisely the advantage the Republicans seek every election by employing the Big Lie in the first place.

The press's refusal to correct Bush's, McCain's, and now Sarah Palin's lies in real time (instead of after the damage is done) raises the question: What function does the press play in a representative democracy if it no longer believes its responsibilities include setting the record straight when public figures lie? Blaming "partisanship" or the "blogosphere" or the "stupidity" of the average voter for the nation's bland acceptance of the McCain campaign's unidentified flying bullshit only serves to absolve the press of its responsibility for the abysmal state of our public discourse. And here is where "journalists" can learn a few things from historians.

Professional historians are very familiar with the "David Abraham Case" of the early 1980s involving a scholar of 20th Century German history who was run out of the profession for screwing up a handful of footnotes in his doctoral dissertation. The case is used to scare the hell out of graduate students of history as they embark on their studies. The lesson is clear: Facts Matter. The rules are simple. A fact looks like this: "On August 6, 1945, the United States detonated a fifteen-kiloton atomic bomb about 300 meters above the city of Hiroshima." Historians have grappled with interpreting the meaning of that fact for the past 63 years; there are many, many differing interpretations. Yet no one disputes that this is a truthful statement -- a fact. But if any historian claimed: "On August 6, 1945, there was no explosion at all above Hiroshima," he or she would be drummed out of the profession in a heartbeat because that is a lie, and you cannot be a liar and a historian at the same time.

Similarly, historians don't just write down the claim that Herbert Hoover saw the economy as running smoothly in 1932 and Franklin Roosevelt saw it as running poorly and then leave it to the reader to decide which historical figure was correct. I think it behooves reporters, journalists, commentators and other members of the press to observe the simple standard used by historians when assessing the lies and falsehoods that are thrown around in political campaigns (especially the current campaign).

If a candidate or campaign interprets the positions or statements of his or her opponent in an exaggerated light -- fine. If a candidate or campaign fabricates smears out of whole cloth about their opponent that are clearly untrue -- then they are lying, and the press has a responsibility to set the record straight. Since journalists pretend to be historians (just look at Tom Brokaw) and their work is often seen as the "first draft" of history, shouldn't they live up to the same simple standards of fact that historians are expected to?