"The Uncracked Nut," talked about the conservatives in our District who simply ignored my message. Here the issue is the press, who didn't take my claims seriously enough to ask, "Are they true?"
I have said that our campaign for Congress achieved its goals with the like-minded people of the Sixth District.
But I identified two parts of the body politic where our campaign failed to help the truth defeat the lie.
We did not reach or move the un-like-minded part of the electorate. This was discussed in the previous installment, "The Uncracked Nut." Now it's time to discuss the second disappointment: the failure of the press to deal seriously with my message.
I liked the men and women of the press with whom I interacted over the months of the campaign, and I believe they liked me. The problem, I think, is not about them as people but with the institutions they work for. And, indeed, I believe that my experience with the press in Virginia's Sixth District points to a profound problem in the American press generally in our times.
I ran to deliver a message. In a nutshell, my message was this: A force has arisen on the political right that has made the Republican Party more destructive and dishonest than anything ever seen before at center stage of American politics. My opponent, as a rubber stamp for that party, was practicing the politics of dishonesty to serve interests destructive to our highest values.
This I believed with deep conviction, such that I have devoted the past eight years of my life to communicating that message to my fellow Americans.
If I were correct, what could be more important for citizens to know?
What would be more important is for the press to help readers judge than the truth of such a claim, if the proper purpose of the press is to help the citizens of a democracy know those truths they need to know in order to do their part to keep their society healthy?
If an election is not the most appropriate time for a democracy to explore competing versions of reality, when would be?
And if I would not be taken seriously as the bearer of such a potentially vital message --as a candidate and with my decades-long history of writing seriously about just such issues as I was raising -- who would be?
Yet the press never inquired into the truth or falsehood of my assertions.
The issue here isn’t about whether the press affected the outcome of the election. I don’t believe that. It’s whether the press recognizes what its proper job is.
Setting aside the matter of how well or superficially my claims and arguments were reported -- a sentence here, a few sentences there— there is a more fundamental issue: The press seemed to think its responsibility lay only in reporting opposing positions and not at all in helping readers and viewers judge which of the conflicting claims was true.
It would be unreasonable to expect news organizations to adjudicate fully my larger claims about the unprecedented patterns of destruction and dishonesty characterizing the force on the political right. But it would have been easy to inquire further into the conflicting versions of reality, asking each candidate to respond to the claims and arguments of the other.
The press, in other words, can generate the kind of conversation – like the adversarial back and forth that we use in our courts-- to help clarify what’s true and what’s false.
Besides making the larger argument, I prosecuted my claims with specific charges about the lies of my opponent and his party. I called him out on his lies about the budgetary implications of Obamacare. I accused him of hypocrisy and inconsistency on his big theme of opposition to "big government." I labeled as “the politics of dishonesty and distraction” my opponent’s channeling of the deliberate Republican distortion of the President’s “you didn’t built that” statement.
In none of these cases, nor in any of the many other cases of dishonesty I brought up, did the press go beyond “A says this, B says that” in order to help the citizens of the Sixth District judge what’s true.
I made the issue of truth the heart of my campaign, not only in my slogan of "Truth. For a Change," but in virtually every speech I gave.
But the press acted as if truth is not its concern.
The issue here is bigger than the specifics of my story— bigger than my campaign with my message in this District— because it illuminates a pervasive problem coverage of American politics.
Today’s press tends to practice a kind of balance that says, “This person says the earth is round, and this other person says the earth is flat.” The audience is left to figure out what’s true.
The average citizen spends mere minutes a day hearing about the news of the wider world. For that and other reasons, he or she is ill-equipped to judge whether the Affordable Care Act will increase or decrease the national debt, or whether climate change deniers have a reasonable case for their dismissal of what scientists say, or whether fiscal austerity would be helpful or harmful under current conditions.
Citizens need help, and who else is in a position to supply that help but the press? Not to tell people what to think but to generate the kind of inquiry that will help the citizenry, like a jury, to come to their own judgments.
The pseudo-balance of reporting equally all claims by politicians is an abdication of responsibility. A press that treats truth and falsehood the same - - that does not put the question “What is true?” at the center of its work - is not doing its job.
So, is there any way that I might have a plausible chance, in a second run, of getting the press to treat my message seriously enough to inquire into its validity?