This morning on the way in to work I made the mistake of tuning in to NPR. Steve Inskeep was interviewing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) about partisanship. In so doing, Frist made the point that the Democrats have blocked 10 Federal Circuit Court nominees from consideration and that, and I quote, “the blocking of 10 justices, has never been done in the history of this country.”
My mouth dropped open, because this is a lie.
It’s not a little lie. It’s not even a big lie. This goes past “big,” all the way into “pathological” territory. This is a lie that says “I’m lying, I know I’m lying, and I think the people listening to me are complete morons.” It shows not just disrespect for truth, but disrespect for the people he’s talking to. That would be you and me.
To his credit, NPR commentator Steve Inskeep immediately sought a clarification, disbelief evident in his voice:
Inskeep: “I’m sorry, blocking of 10 justices has never been done?”
Frist: “Yes! Absolutely. We have for the first time in 200 years a party, that is the Democratic party, has refused to allow the Senate to give ‘advice and consent’ on circuit court nominees from the President of the United States. It’s never been done.”
Inskeep: “If I may, Senator [...] Republicans, when President Clinton was in control, blocked many many judges using other methods.”
When confronted by the truth (and he knows full well that over 60 of Clinton’s judicial appointees were stuffed down in committee) Frist stumbled, and then went on to repeat the talking point.
What disgusts me is not that Frist lied. What disgusts me that he thought he would get away with it.
And I don’t know that I blame the Senate Majority Leader for that because, frankly, when he first uttered the lie, I thought he would get away with it, too.
I think this is exactly the sort of thing that Jon Stewart has been talking about when he criticizes the media for their lack of analysis. If Frist had been on Hardball, or Crossfire, or Meet the Press, it seems likely to me that he would have delivered his lie, and no reporter would have challenged him on it, even if they knew it was false. When Inskeep called him on his lie, you could hear that Frist was stunned. “How dare he?” I imagine him thinking. “How dare he?”
Frist is responsible for his own lies. But our media — by which I mean “every reporter who acts as a conduit for an untruth and doesn’t identify it as such for his readers, listeners, or viewers” — is responsible for creating an environment in which political liars can have a good faith belief that their deception will probably go unchallenged.
I’m glad that Inskeep was willing to call the Senator on his patent deception. I’ll be more glad when that’s the journalistic norm, and not the exception. I don’t want my journalists to be nothing more than conduits for the propaganda of any political party — even a party I support. If I want to read press releases or public relations, I can go to the party’s website and get that. To quote Jon Stewart: we need their help. There is too much information for readers to know what is true or untrue.
We need journalists to do their jobs.
In the days when the Soviet Union was still Communist (or, for that matter, still around), two of their major newspapers were Pravda (literally “Truth”), which was the Communist Party newspaper, and Izvestia (literally “News”), which was the official government newspaper. A popular aphorism for many years was “There is no pravda in izvestia, and there is no izvestia in pravda.” Please, CNN. Please, New York Times. Please, Fox News. Please, freelance and full-time journalists everywhere. We need more pravda in our izvestia. We need it now.
- You can hear the entirety of the interview between Steve Inskeep and Bill Frist here. The exchange I quoted starts at around 1 minute 55 seconds in to the segment.
- You can read the English-language edition of Pravda online, although I’m told that the American edition has higher production values. Izvestia is online also, but only in Russian
- If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I mention John Stewart’s push for media accountability, you can read this article.