What to do about political lies?

I feel a little guilty for constantly referring to Steve Benen’s blog at WashingtonMonthly.com, but he keeps making points that I agree with.

In his latest post, Benen himself references a very interesting piece by another blogger, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, titled “The Power of Flat Out Lies.” And Drum in turn cites Paul Waldman of The American Prospect.

Waldman was complaining about a particularly ridiculous falsehood spread by Republican candidate Herman Cain, who suggested that “Obamacare” somehow requires doctors to get government approval for diagnostic procedures and for treatments.

I don’t know whether Cain is an ignoramus or a liar, but it has to be at least one, maybe both. He stood on a stage, looked into the camera, and told people that under the ACA, doctors will have to get permission from government bureaucrats for every procedure, and treatment of illnesses will proceed not according to the recommendations of medical professionals but on “the government’s timetable.” You might say, “Well, nobody would be dumb enough to actually believe that,” but you’d be so, so, wrong. It’s not just Cain. If you’re a conservative, you hear this kind of thing from politicians you like and trust, you hear it when you turn on Fox News and watch TV personalities you like and trust, and you hear it from radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh that you like and trust. You’ve heard it hundreds and hundreds of times. Were someone to tell you that it’s not just false but spectacularly, insanely false, you wouldn’t listen for a second.

Drum says that politicians in general are prone to spin the facts, but at present a number of leading Republicans are particularly guilty of spreading serious, out-and-out falsehoods, and one possible reason for this is that it’s to their advantage and they pay essentially no penalty.

It’s awfully hard to fight stuff this brazen. Everyone understands that politicians fudge details and engage in partisan hypocrisy. All part of the game. But most of us don’t expect them to flat out lie. So when they do, we figure there must be something to it. It’s a pretty powerful formula, especially when the mainstream press no longer seriously polices this stuff, and isn’t much believed even when it does. The answer remains frustratingly elusive.

And to quote Benen:

Some news outlets will run fact-check items that most of the public won’t see, and many who do come across these pieces won’t believe them anyway, since they’ve been told that the media is “liberal” and not to be trusted. It’s always been an underlying part of the campaign against media — if the right can discredit the referees, it’s that much easier to get away with wrongdoing.

Even for well-intentioned members of the public, there’s very likely a sense that the lies might have some truth in them. And through constant repetition and reinforcement from like-minded outlets like Fox News and talk radio, folks start to consider the falsehoods credible simply because they’ve heard them so many times, which creates an incentive to tell even bigger lies.

What’s to be done when the discourse is broken? I don’t know, but I’m open to suggestion.

I’m aware of the fact that my tendency to disagree with Republican policies probably makes me more receptive to criticism of Republicans, but I don’t think Benen and Drum are being unfair in singling them out. But in any case, no politician from any part of the political spectrum should find lying advantageous, and even innocent falsehoods ought to be corrected. It’s a tragedy that our news media far too often let them get away with it except for widely-ignored “fact check” pieces.

Unfortunately, I’ve no better idea than these other guys what to do about the problem.

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