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Swiftboating Sells -- But Only if We're Buying

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A pregnant woman in Georgia mourns the death-by-airstrike of her husband on the front page of today's New York Times. Below the heartbreaking picture is the equally gut-wrenching story of unnecessary and painful death in the hands of U.S. immigration authorities. Both are tragic tales which most of us who read the paper every day have relatively little ability to control. Yet Page 1 offers up another infuriating story which we most certainly do have a say in: the latest tale of swiftboating for monetary and political gain.

Obama Nation is the latest offering by Jerome R. Corsi, the infamous quasi-journalist who caused irrevocable damage to Senator Kerry's 2004 campaign with his widely-discredited Unfit for Command. As the Times notes, "Several of [Obama Nation's] accusations, in fact, are unsubstantiated, misleading or inaccurate... Nonetheless, it is to make its first appearance on The New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction hardcovers this Sunday -- at No. 1."

Political support for Senator Obama is not the issue here; if a similar book was published making unsubstantiated claims about Senator McCain it would be equally reprehensible. What is at stake is something of far greater significance: the fairness, balance, and ethical standards of our media. Obama Nation happens to be published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, under the direction of Mary Matalin -- a Republican woman whom I personally like -- but whose decision to print a book containing unchecked and insinuating "facts" is plain wrong. And as consumers, we should demand better.

There's a Native American saying that goes, "He who tells the stories rules the world." But I would argue that in the media-soaked 21st century, those who tell the stories only rule if consumers allow them to. In our choice to subscribe to a newspaper or choose a competitor, watch a news show or flip the channel, buy or pass by a book, lies a weighty power: the almighty dollar. With the exception of our vote, we have little immediate control as individuals over the bombings in Georgia or the cruelty of some immigration officials. But what we buy is very much in our control.

This summer, The White House Project, along with the Women's Media Center and the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, held a conference entitled "From Soundbites to Solutions: Bias, Punditry, and the Press in the 2008 Election." From the substantive dialogue amongst the political pundits and media operatives who participated in the conference, a forthcoming report provides meaty solutions to the pressing problem of media bias. Among the solutions proposed in the upcoming Bias, Punditry, and the Press: Where Do We Go From Here are a bevy of recommendations for consumers to combat media bias.

They include:

1. Exercise the Power of Your Purse. Don't like it? Don't buy it.
2. Email the Advertisers. If it's on the public airwaves, find out who the advertisers are and write them a note.
3. Call the Television or Radio Newsroom. Tell those in charge what you really think. What the public demands can make a difference.
4. Write the Newspaper or Magazine Editor. See something you don't like? Let the editor know.
5. Create and Participate in Alternative Media. Digital media and the rise of citizen journalism offer myriad opportunities to democratize the news. Dive in.

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, this timely discussion will continue in another "Soundbites" panel, featuring speakers from CNN, MSNBC, Salon.com, The Nation and NPR. In the meantime, the next time you turn on cable news or peruse your local bookstore, remember this: partisan lies and shoddy journalism sells -- but only if you're buying.