Sunday, March 18, 2007

Why the right-wing smear machine works

Sometimes, something happens or I hear something that just jolts me out of my blogponymous narcissism. For example, when I find out that some people don't at least glance at a couple of Internet news sources most days. Or when I realize that there are some people that don't even read blogs (or know what they are), let alone have one of their own. It's moments like that that make me realize just how the right-wing noise machine works.

The hard part is getting a story/smear started. Once it's planted somewhere, other, more "respectable" media outlets can report on the fact that someone else is reporting the smear. Then commentators pick it up and start using it as a talking point. Then it becomes a code word to the base. For example, Al Gore says he "invented the Internet," or that John Kerry is a coward and threw his medals away.

Greg Sargent over at The Horses Mouth shows this with the "Hillary's drawl" story. No CNN anchor reported on Hillary's drawl until the day after Drudge commented on it. Then, they were all condemning it and quoting Clinton out of context. Elsewhere, Sargent even blogs about a Washington Post article about how Drudge is the "launching post" for stories.

So I was listening to C-SPAN the other day, and this caller calls into Washington Journal:

CALLER: Good morning and thank you for taking my call. I have a question about a news article that was on two or three TV stations approximately a month ago. Senator Clinton made a comment that Mr. Obama attended a madrassa as a child and I was just wondering if he ... I haven't heard anybody say if he is a practicing Muslim, or if he isn't affiliated with any particular religion.

The caller is of course referring to the story that was reported by, without any named sources, that associates of Clinton had discovered that Senator Obama had attended an extremist Muslim madrassa. The story was thoroughly debunked, but persists in the right-wing media, in soundbite and code word form, if nothing else. This poor guy heard probably about it initially, and didn't catch any of the followup stories (probably on other networks, if he heard about it on FOX), so he still thinks it's true. How many other people do?

So we have a completely unsourced story on a right-wing website (not only were there no sources in the article, no reporter or author is listed). The story is immediately picked up by FOX News, where anchors and commentators talk about it for several days. Little followup is done to show the story is a complete falsehood. The story has now entered the zeitgeist, and people accept it as true, even though it's not.

If you go to the FOX News site now, and search for "Obama madrassa," three pages come up in the results. Two are transcripts of John Gibson reporting the smear. The other is an AP story refuting it, but there's no indication that this made it to air.

Clearly, the story has accomplished its purpose, namely to smear Obama. Whether or not it's true is unimportant; the only thing that matters is to get it out onto the airwaves.

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