When a candidate makes a false claim, reporters can respond one of three ways:
* They can ignore it, on the basis that a false claim is unworthy of attention.
* They can adopt the false claim as the basis of their report, as they did with this week’s stories about whether or not Barack Obama had made a sexist comment about Sarah Palin.
* They can produce a report centered on the fact that the candidate is saying something that is untrue. If it is the latest of many falsehoods, they can indicate that. If the candidate is telling more and larger falsehoods than the opposition, they can make that clear. In short, they can make the lack of credibility of the person making the false claim the theme of their coverage.
The first option privileges the lie by allowing a candidate to run around saying things that are not true — but at least it does not help spread the lie further.
The second option — even if it includes mention of the fact that the claim is false — privileges the lie a great deal by helping the candidate spread the false claims. At the end of the day, what most people take away from this week’s media coverage of the lipstick flap is likely that there is some controversy around whether Barack Obama made a sexist comment about Sarah Palin. That’s a clear advantage to McCain — and thus the media’s handling of the episode has rewarded his falsehood.
The third option punishes the falsehood. If you think the media’s job is to bring their readers and viewers the truth, this is obviously the best of the three options.
This is where some will say “but then reporters will be taking sides.”
And there is some truth to that: They’ll be taking the truth’s side.
Reporters “take sides” with everything they do. Everything they do involves a choice, involves a decision that X is more important than Y. When they report a lie five times before reporting the fact that it is false, they are taking the lie’s side.
The question isn’t whether reporters should “take sides” — they can’t possibly avoid taking sides.
The only question is whether they will side with truth or with fiction.
A lot of political reporters seem to work under the impression that they offer neutral descriptions of lies. As Foser notes, they can’t: they’re either for them or against them.