03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Betsy McCaughey Media Obsession: What's The Point?

Columbia Journalism Review's Greg Marx will have to be a little bit more specific on what "concerns" of mine he feels I am "overstating," but beyond that minor quibble, I think his post today on the "pros and cons of blasting Betsy McCaughey" in the media is wonderfully spot-on. I got emails from a couple of regular readers in the wake of yesterday's Dylan Ratigan-Betsy McCaughey tilt who wondered why people continue to put McCaughey on television, again and again, long after the reality-based world has affirmed her as a liar of the highest order. The short answer to that, I feel, is that the media is seeking absolution for having been taken in by McCaughey during the Clinton health care battles of yesteryear. Marx expounds on this at length:

There's a good reason why so many in the media, under prodding by liberal activists and advocates, have set their sights on McCaughey: she distorted the debate on the Clinton health care reform efforts with an infamous, error-riddled New Republic article--the magazine's "original sin," for which this new hatchet job is apparently penitence--and she's been turning in a repeat performance this year, flacking an assortment of untruths, exaggerations, and slanders. McCaughey is a reliable font of misinformation, not an honest partner to debate, so some "naming and shaming," in the words of Spinsanity co-founder Brendan Nyhan, is in order. What's more, the ridicule has been effective -- as Ben Smith notes at Politico, during the current go-round McCaughey has been "nowhere near the player she was in 1994."

Marx also notes that McCaughey's allure also lies in the fact that she's an "exciting liar," a ready-made partner in the health care geek show that the media has been so willing to feed over the course of the summer. To my mind, that's a potentially problematic side to publicly confronting McCaughey all the time. Marx raises an important question:

At what point is enough enough? This sort of journalistic calling-out isn't likely to dislodge misinformation once it has taken hold, after all, so it serves two functions: to discourage other news outlets from giving credence to false claims, and to promote a culture of honesty by punishing fabricators. Is there a point at which those goals have been achieved--as much as they will be, anyway--and we can move on?

That McCaughey's antagonists now operate in acknowledgment of her status as a dedicated liar does not necessarily diminish her ability to spread falsehoods. In fact, McCaughey is a vastly skilled dissembler, whose modus operandi is to erect the illusion of organized thought. She is tremendously gifted at building up that artifice, and when she's given the chance to do so, you run the risk that her deceptions will take root. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart did as good a job of any I've seen in offering pushback and asking pointed questions, but even his efforts left something of a half-finished game of Jenga -- the edifice looks shaky, but it's still standing.

The overwhelming desire to get in some licks at McCaughey's expense is somewhat rooted in simple human nature. The return of the health care debate -- and McCaughey's re-emergence -- reminds many in the media of their "original sin." I think it's in our nature to want to make up for prior mistakes, but too often, we rush out to try to get a quick fix or earn the easiest possible make-up call. That can make us feel better, but Marx points out that actually doing better requires a different sort of corrective commitment:

The upshot is that we need to address that "structural weakness"--not, at this point, keep competing to see who can do the best job of filleting McCaughey.

The sooner we stop pointing cameras at Betsy McCaughey, the sooner we can start addressing the larger, underlying concern.

Target Practice [CJR]

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