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Is "Liar" As Bad As "Terrorist"?

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Over at The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder has an interesting post about a partisan dispute over press coverage of campaign events and the whackjobs who attend them:

So crazy liberals at Obama-Biden events occasionally make fun of Sarah Palin in crude terms, and at times, a more than a few folks have yelled that McCain is a warmonger and a liar. Obama-Biden campaign rallies can be quite toxic to the POV that McCain’s a decent guy.

And yet the media, complains the McCain campaign, doesn’t cover this….it only covers Republicans — isolated occasional “nut jobs” — who call Obama an “Arab” … and a “terrorist.” The media never reports that Obama or Biden encourage their crowd to believe that McCain is a liar, or that Sarah Palin is a dilettante.

And — yet yet — Democrats claim that there is no equivalence; calling Obama a “terrorist” and or saying he pals around with them has subcutaneous coding that’s much more dangerous for society — and for Obama — than what McCain hears at his rally.

Ambinder asks if this is a double standard. I think “double” is beside the point: it’s actually the press applying a standard for once, in contrast with longtime practice. And it may say something about how campaigns are covered (and even how they are run) in the future.

First off: the two types of insults being compared here are not equivalent. Not nearly. Disagree if you want, call me a biased Obama backer if you want. Calling someone unqualified does not carry close to the stigma of calling someone a “terrorist,” and it didn’t even before 9/11. Calling someone a liar (even falsely) is nothing—in our culture and probably any other—next to maligning their ethnicity (and falsely at that). And fomenting one is more dangerous than fomenting the other.

(Also: Is it just as bad to smear someone as old as to smear them as a Muslim in post-9/11 America? Ask an old American Muslim.)

Add to that the fact that campaigns commonly call their opponents liars and naifs; candidates do not universally get called Arabs and terrorists. Add to that the fact that the McCain campaign itself has said that Obama has lied and is unqualified (as Obama people have said of McCain and Palin, respectively).

But for journalists, non-opinion writers in particular, to make that call has long been considered close to anathema. The press, especially in controversial areas like politics, has followed a standard of balance and equivalency, no matter the subject. If someone says it is day, you find someone to say it is night, and you treat both arguments as equally likely to be true (as if it were dusk 24 hours a day). If a scientist says man caused climate change, you find one who says otherwise.

The problem with this approach is that it was less about finding the truth than avoiding responsibility for adjudicating truth. “We gave both sides” was the ultimate defense. People can decide for themselves!

And so if one campaign charged another with an outrage, you were not only obligated to give the other side, but to look for counterexamples and to treat them as—at least arguably—equivalent. Some say this! And some say that! Who knows who’s right? What is truth?

In its defense, this approach of equivalency was a safeguard against news organizations turning into arms of the campaigns. But it also made possible things like the Swift Boat smears against John Kerry, which were largely given some-say-this-some-say-that treatment.

The problem with that kind of equivalency, however, is that by throwing up your hands and refusing to adjudicate, you give the advantage to whoever is willing to come up with the boldest, most egregious line of B.S. It is not a practice that actually serves your audience, which looks to the media to cut through the B.S. and say what is actually true. But you’ve got an airtight defense against bias!

Frankly, I think that this is where a lot of the frustration in the McCain camp comes from. Under the old system, their arguments would be working much better. The rules have, to some extent, changed; and whether it’s because of press bias or a broader shift in press mores, either way, it’s working against them. They are probably being treated differently than they would have, say, in 2004; that is not the same as saying they are being treated unfairly.

Now it’s possible that the press are making the right decision for the wrong reasons. Maybe it’s only because journalists are so throughly smitten with Obama that they are shedding the old practice of false equivalency. Maybe the rush of critical reporting after Katrina showed the press that it was safe to call shots like “this campaign is more egregiously over the line,” or “this government disaster response is not working.” Immediately after 9/11, when a press was facing a business slowdown and terrified of being seen as unpatriotic, the attitude was much different.

Regardless of the motivation for moving away from knee-jerk equivalency, it’s still the right move to make. And it’s being made slowly and only in some instances: there’s still plenty of false equivalency out there.

And yet, a campaign suddenly caught working in an environment where the rules have changed has a point. It’s not the McCain campaign’s fault that they were expecting the press to use the same on-the-one-hand-on-the-other frame it always used to. It’s unlucky for them. It’s unfair.

But in a case where two competing claims really are not equivalent, sometimes unfair and unbalanced actually amount to the right thing.