No one is going to suggest that the mainstream media that spent much of the last week of a critical national election campaign focusing on a non-candidate's failed attempt to tell a joke distinguished itself by offering citizens the information they need to cast informed votes. The absurd amount of attention that was devoted to a flap surrounding U.S. Senator John Kerry's attempt to poke fun at George Bush's ignorance of international affairs served as a reminder of how easily most broadcast journalists and talk-show hosts can be spun. It is much easier to note the exceptions to the rule -- such as CNN's "Broken Government" series and Jack Cafferty's commendable "throw-them-all-out" commentaries, and syndicated radio host Stephanie Miller's daily dissection of Republican talking points and the right-wing media's repetition of them -- than it is to count all the examples of tangled truths and mangled realities.
But the campaign season did close with one remarkable example of a prominent television personality using his program to challenge a particular politician's penchant for peddling sleaze. The politician in question is U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, the Ohio Republican who, like several other members of the GOP caucus, has fallen behind in his bid for a new term.
Ohio political observers know that DeWine has a long history of engaging in dirty and deceptive tactics in the final stages of his campaigns -- especially when the Republican is trailing. DeWine once accused former Senator John Glenn of being soft on communism, as part of a campaign that led the Dayton Daily News newspaper to accuse "mud-loving Mike DeWine" of running "a thoroughly negative campaign." That was a rare example of the media calling the Republican to account.
For the most part, however, DeWine has gotten away with smearing his opponents because fewin the media have challenged him on his tactics. In fact, as the media has become increasing lax in recent years, the senator has come to count on journalists to swallow his spin without challenge or complaint.
So when DeWine went on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" a few days before this year's election, the senator expected to be able to use the national "free-media" exposure to attack his Democratic challenger, U.S. Representative Sherrod Brown, without any facing any consequences.
DeWine appeared on "Hardball" to amplify charges made in a campaign commercial that was airing on television stations around Ohio. The ad dredged up a discredited claim that, when Brown served in the 198Os as Ohio Secretary of State, the Democrat failed to address charges that a low-level employee of the office sold marijuana. The DeWine ad failed to note that, when Republicans first raised this "issue" in 199O, the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper reported that that there was "no evidence of impropriety" by Brown, while the Dayton Daily News described the Republican attacks on the Democrat as "trumped-up charges" that had been "officially discredited."
DeWine wasn't betting on Matthews to question the validity of the attack ad?
He bet wrong.
After the senator repeated allegations from the ad, Matthews asked, "What was the person's name? What's the person's name who was selling drugs, you say, illegally? Who was that person?"
DeWine mumbled, "I don't know the person's name..."
"Well, did this person ever get arrested?" asked Matthews. "Was this person ever arrested or convicted?"
"There was no charges filed," admitted DeWine.
Matthews pressed the senator: "O.K., what year was this?"
DeWine: "We're talking now, uh, er, the buy itself was made in 1986..."
Matthews: "You're talking about what your opponent's office did twenty years ago. You can't give me the name of the person involved. You've admitted that the person was never charged or convicted..."
DeWine tried to interrupt Matthews with another recitation of Brown's supposed sins. But Matthews was not going to let the senator get away with it.
"Isn't it kind of embarrassing having been a good Senator from Ohio without a mark on you to have to go back and dig up this scum?" Matthews asked. "Don't you feel embarrassed you're doing this, Senator? You wouldn't be talking about this if you weren't well behind in this race."
Truth may be a precious commodity in contemporary politics. But, sometimes, a ray of light shines through the spin. And Chris Matthews deserves credit for using that light to expose the scum on Mike DeWine's reelection campaign.
John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com