Last Night: Lies, Price Gouging, a Howler and Deplorables

The news isn't good but our critic is awarding more orchids than onions this cycle.

Last Night: Lies, Price Gouging, a Howler and Deplorables


Another installment in our ongoing effort to monitor how politics is covered on prime-time television (and, occasionally, other major media).

Where’s the outrage?

Onions, once again, to just about the entire mainstream media over the coverage of the vice presidential debate between Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, on the Republican side, and his Democratic opponent, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its boots,” Mark Twain was alleged to have said. That has special relevance for this election. There has been more fact-checking than I can ever remember. Donald Trump was even called out by The New York Times for his “lies,” and the reliably leftish Huffington Post headlined its day-after vp debate coverage with “Liar Liar Pence on Fire.”

Sliced red onions

Onions (Photo: Darwin Bell [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

All candidates bend the truth. All candidates try to put the best spin on things. But we have never had a ticket that lies as constantly as the Trump-Pence ticket does, constantly. While Pence was taken to task by a few folks for pretending that Trump hadn’t said the things that he is on record having said, the verdict still came in that Pence “won” the debate. (See The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza if you want to read the conventional wisdom as well as to see how steeply political reporting has devolved.) It didn’t seem to make much difference that Pence evaded, prevaricated, and, yes, downright lied. After all, he was cool and calm while doing so.

But lies matter. And the press should be doing more than providing a checklist – and often a namby-pamby one at that, careful to balance Trump’s outright whoppers with Clinton’s gentle spin. Glenn Kessler, who runs the Fact Check blog for The Post, provided an outrageous example in Thursday’s paper checking Kaine’s and Clinton’s comments on Iraq’s Status of Forces agreement. Even though everything Kaine and Clinton had said was true – and, my god, nuanced! – Kessler awarded them “two Pinocchios.” It is what Paul Krugman of The Times has labeled “bothsidesism.” If you bash one side, you sure as hell better bash the other.

I do applaud the attempts at fact-checking. But this isn’t a sport where you post “lie averages.” It isn’t enough to run a checklist of lies when one ticket spews so many of them that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact can barely keep track. Sixty-nine percent of Trump’s statements have been rated either mostly false, false or “pants on fire.” Sixty-nine percent!

It certainly isn’t enough to overlook outright lies just because they are delivered with aplomb, as the press did with Pence on Monday. Nothing calls out the press as much as this tired form of theater criticism over substance and the emphasis on how something was said rather than on what was said. What the press has to do is not just identify individual lies, which, granted, is an endless task, but to demonstrate Trump’s aversion to the truth as a central meme of his campaign. Otherwise, we are likely to hit Election Day with the media still putting on their boots.

Storm profiteers

Orchids to Jeff Rossen of NBC Nightly News. On Thursday’s broadcast, as Hurricane Matthew was barreling toward the Florida coast, Rossen reported how businesses in the area were taking advantage of the pending disaster by hiking prices: a gallon of gas selling anywhere from $6 to $9.99; bottled water, $30 a jug; hotels ripping up their old room rates and posting new, higher ones. Rossen’s report is a corrective of what I discussed in a previous post when I said that the press too often gives business a pass, glorifying it as the fount of wisdom and economic goodness while demonizing government. As Donald Trump, might say of the price-gouging, “That’s just business.” NBC felt otherwise.

Purple orchids

Orchids (Photo: Ramesh NG [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Indispensible howler

Orchids to Bob Somerby and his site, dailyhowler. For those who critique the media as well as those who simply consume them, it is a required stop. That said, Somerby, a former professional comedian, is very much an acquired taste. He is something of a crank, going off on seemingly bizarre tangents like the reporting on Einstein’s theory of relativity, or analyzing educational testing (Somerby says he used to teach fifth graders). He can be rough and intemperate and occasionally hysterical, though, let’s face it, the media’s misdeeds call for that treatment and more. He is a name-caller. (He has even called me a few names along the way.) He can be unfair at times, and he tends to coddle grass roots right-wingers as victims rather than perpetrators. And those on the left should be forewarned that he can be as tough if not tougher on the so-called liberal media – Rachel Maddow has become a favorite target – than on the conservative media, which are so far beyond the pale, they seem not to be worth his effort. Indeed, if he has a cause, other than setting the record straight, it is hoping to pressure the liberal media into not being as puerile as the conservative media. He isn’t holding his breath.

And yet, despite his faults, Somerby is indispensable – to my mind the single most important media critic in America — just, unfortunately, not its most effective. He began his website way back in 1998 when the Clintons were being hammered by the press – and not, he routinely points out, just the right-wing press, but the mainstream and even the so-called liberal press. It was malfeasance of the highest order. With Al Gore’s nomination, Somerby kicked into even higher gear, giving an invaluable daily account of how the press was sinking Gore’s candidacy with lies, innuendo, snark, and just plain hatred. If you want to know how George W. Bush got elected, look here. And, by the way, Somerby isn’t timid about naming names. He has continued raking through the press and raking it over the coals. I have no idea who finances his site, but it is both omnivorous and detailed in its coverage. Somerby doesn’t miss a thing (he seems to have complete transcripts of every news show), and he never lets up.

If the media were forced to answer prosecutor Somerby’s daily indictments, we would be living in a very different political world – one without Donald Trump and probably a whole lot of other folks. Of course, the media just ignore him. But you shouldn’t, tangents, rants, name-calling and all. His is an exegesis on the press without which the press would get away with murder with no witnesses.

Truly deplorable

And more orchids to Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek, who has become a one-man truth squad on Trump’s business interests. In a new piece, Eichenwald describes how the “deplorables” (a term he embraces for reasons his piece makes all too plain) have come after him and threatened him, one of them even hunting down the schools his children attend and another using a device to trigger an epileptic seizure. (Eichenwald suffers from intractable epilepsy.)

He goes onto discuss other reporters – among them NBC’s Katy Tur and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Julia Ioffe, who wrote a piece on Melania Trump for GQ — who have also received threats from Trump supporters. As Eichenwald puts it:

That our country has reached this point, where the line between modern American political supporters and Hitler’s brownshirts is becoming thinner by the day, is unacceptable. That GOP candidates have stood by and allowed this ugliness to flourish without aggressively condemning their candidate for what he has set loose, simply because they are seeking re-election or fear losing their jobs at the mid-terms, will stain the Republican Party for decades.

So while we are awarding orchids to Eichenwald and Tur and Goldberg and Ioffe, how about a whole bag of onions for reporters who, while Eichenwald et al. are risking their lives, are too timid to lay Trump bare and who treat him as if he were a legitimate candidate rather than a demagogue and racist who threatens our democracy.

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.