In the summer of 2002, a senior aide to President George W. Bush met with a writer whose work had annoyed him to deliver a lesson in how his administration saw its mandate.
"The aide said that guys like me … 'believe that solutions emerge from … judicious study of discernible reality,'" Ron Suskind wrote, recalling the event two years later. "'That's not the way the world really works anymore...,' [the aide] continued. 'When we act, we create our own reality.'"
Even in the days before the Bush presidency and Karl Rove, widely believed to be the source of that quote, political campaigns of all stripes have strived to "create their own realities."
But while reporters have ridiculed Democrat Michael Dukakis for riding in a tank and belittled Barack Obama for the Greek columns at his nomination speech, Republicans have succeeded in turning the manipulation of myth into an art form.
That's been evident this week as Rove protégé and Sen. John McCain's adviser Steve Schmidt has steadied the ship of Sarah Palin's rollout. First, he bullied the news media into submission. Then the campaign pushed an unrelenting portrayal of her as a maverick.
As reporters disclosed that Ms. Palin sought earmarks for her hometown before she opposed them and supported the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it, the campaign's message only got more persistent and better packaged. On Monday, it released a new ad titled "Original Mavericks."
And while the McCain campaign hammered the media for invading Palin's privacy, it has used every opportunity to idealize her family, even flying in the boyfriend of her pregnant 17-year-old daughter Bristol and parading both on stage behind the governor after she accepted the Republican nomination for vice president. Reality television seemed to trump reality itself as the nomination took on the look of a new daytime soap. Meanwhile, the news media – pushed back by the McCain campaign, then fed this feel-good story line – converted Palin from untested and unvetted to "hockey mom," a "pit bull with lipstick" ready to bite Obama.
The turnaround has been breathtaking.
Just over a week ago reporters disclosed that Palin is being investigated for allegedly trying to intimidate state officials into firing her estranged state trooper brother-in-law. Commentators raised sharp questions about her inexperience and poor vetting. Airwaves filled with idle – and sexist – speculation over whether a mother of five could handle the vice presidency.
But by Friday, an MSNBC commentator offered the breathy pronouncement that the McCain-Palin ticket "will be ahead in the polls by the end of the week." And on Sunday a long profile in The Washington Post pivoted on this sentence: "Of the many striking images of Palin – sportswoman, beauty queen, populist – in Alaska the most iconic is working mother, a perfectly coifed professional woman balancing public duties and child-rearing in a charismatic blur of multitasking."
Meanwhile, reports of Palin's hard-right credentials (anti-abortion, pro-gun, possibly pro-creationism, and pro-abstinence education) receded rapidly as did news, covered in a blur, that she had attended five colleges over six years before graduating.
The see-saw story of Sarah Palin should give the press pause. Feeding frenzies followed by fawning serve only to confuse. If the public is to make sound decisions, to sort what's real from what's manufactured, the media must do their job with greater consistency and greater care.
1. The media should redouble efforts to unearth facts and spend far less time on speculation and titillation. McCain, Palin, Obama, and Joe Biden all have records. It's the media's job to expose contradictions in them – and to keep doing so even when campaigns push back. It is not the media's job to speculate who will be leading next week or whether a candidate can parent and govern simultaneously.
2. The media need to reexamine the meaning of journalistic objectivity. It is not to give equal weight and space to each side of an issue. It is to report fully and fairly, to determine where the facts fall, and to write what's verifiably true – giving a say, but not equal space, to those who contest the facts without evidence.
Palin, for example, does not believe climate change has a human cause. The scientific consensus says otherwise. Should her views carry equal weight as the campaign grinds on? My journalism professors would have said "no."
3. The media should regularly explain what reporters do and why. In an era in which reporters are about as popular as $4-a-gallon gasoline, this is imperative. This spring I gave a workshop to some 50 university public information employees. I faced a long silence before anyone could tell me what the First Amendment protects.
Until the news media turn both tougher and fairer, provides contextual truth and not just balance, political operatives will hold the upper hand. And the public will move through election cycles like motorists peering into a thick fog.
"You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time," Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said.
Only a vigilant media can keep Machiavellian calculations of contemporary campaigns from fooling enough people enough of the time to make such deceit the deciding factor in our elections.