My new Think Again column is called “The Times’ Frank Bruni, or How to Succeed in Journalism Without Really Caring (About Issues)” and it’s here.

I got a ton of mail regarding my attempt to correct Noam Chomsky’s dishonest words about my work. I’d estimate that 85 percent of it was negative and about 50 percent was angry and insulting. I expected this. The purpose of the post was to correct the record in the real world, should Chomsky’s false manipulation of my words ever migrate there. I did not expect many of his fans to reconsider their admiration of him, any more than I do Ralph Nader’s (another source of frequently abusive e-mails). But thanks to everyone who wrote in, agree or disagree, in a civil and sensible fashion.

Now here’s Reed’s excellent post:

It’s Not All About Timing

First, an amuse-bouche

It does not surprise me in the least that former Gov. Sarah Palin would think it wise to endorse a two-hour-long, hagiographic movie about herself as a possible way to reignite her futile presidential aspirations. (But were they to somehow come to fruition, just know she would be “a disaster of, well, biblical proportions,” according to a former longtime aide.) Nor is it a shock that an early screening of the “movie,” due out next month, confirms it will be chock full of Palin’s trademark resentment, sanctimoniousness (Joan of Arc parallels!), and petty score-settling. This is the season of pointless popcorn movies, after all.

But what I simply cannot get over is what they’re calling it—The Undefeated. I mean, really? Sounding like a time-traveling cinematic collaboration between M. Night Shyamalan and John Ford, this ponderous title once again proves that Palin exists in a rarefied state of narcissistic self-delusion, one where things like irony and humility can freely pass through without any impact whatsoever, sort of like neutrinos idly drifting through the earth. I mean, if the two most notable feats on one’s political resumé involve (a) a nationwide electoral defeat sanctioned by a majority of the American voters and (b) a self-selected abdication of one’s sworn public duties as part of a not-so-subtle attempt to sellout faster than anyone since perhaps Moby, then maybe there are a few alternative movie titles one might consider other than “The Undefeated.”

(And speaking of musical artists selling out, might I recommend checking out the hilariously brilliant “Moby Equation” formula, which, sadly, I only discovered this week. Finally, music fans have a quasi-scientific way of quantifying the crass commercialization and betrayal of first principles involved in, say, The Clash’s “London Calling” being used to hawk Jaguars. Try it for yourself, but be forewarned, it can be addictive.)

Now, onto the main course…

So, GOP wunderkind Representative Paul Ryan had to downshift into full damage control mode this week after his signature legislative achievement, which would effectively end Medicare and Medicaid, turned into enough of a singular electoral liability that a Democrat won a Congressional special election victory out in rock-ribbed Western New York. In what amounted to a political epiphany, this latest Paul humbly climbed down off his metaphorical high horse and, as part of his post-election defeat spin, found it in his heart to bemoan the evils of shameless demagoguery, to which he and his party have been so cruelly been subjected to lately:

“If you can scare seniors into thinking their current benefits are being affected, that’s going to have an effect. And that is exactly what took place here. So yes, it’s demagoguery; it’s scaring seniors…. People in the Republican Party are nervous because of those ads. Because demagoguery unfortunately has worked in the past. But I think people are getting tired of it." (Italics mine.)

The penultimate sentence from that quote, alone, should guarantee Ryan’s induction into the Political Chutzpah Hall of Fame as well as his expulsion from the punditry’s “serious” politician club. Indeed, it takes a special brand of audacity to grandly call for unilateral political disarmament with regard to your own ruinous proposal for “reforming” Medicare, while simultaneously enjoying the fruits of a House majority won precisely because of the shameless (and, yes, effective) demagoging of that same issue in the midterm elections last fall.

Still, Ryan is right in at least one respect—his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate, who have voted for his plan in near lockstep, are nervous, as well they should be. His plan for irrevocably sundering two of our country’s most precious social compacts with its citizenry is wildly unpopular (even within the GOP rank and file) and shaping up to do for the party’s 2012 electoral prospects what hitting the iceberg did for the Titanic. (The analogy isn’t perfect, I admit, as I doubt very many of those unfortunate souls in the lifeboats hailed the tragic accident as “courageous” or a “bold first step.”) But hey, political winds change all the time, and that politicians change their minds with them to regain the advantage is a time-honored tradition.

That’s where the media comes in. It’s supposed to suss out these flip-flops, double standards, and hypocritical talking points to give the public a clearer picture of what’s really going on. But that implies the taking of sides and the contextualizing of rhetoric; something the mores of American “objective journalism” have little appetite for.

Case in point this week, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. Or I should say “left-leaning” columnist Dana Milbank, who in his column from this past Wednesday ably identifies Ryan’s intellectually dishonest budget tactics, but at the same time also buys into his shtick that Democrats are just as guilty. But according to the evidence cited in Milbank’s “everybody does it” balance sheet, a single web parody of Ryan’s Medicare plan put together by a liberal group I’ve never heard of is supposedly equivalent to the relentless, multi-year disinformation campaign about the Affordable Care Act that was dutifully executed by everyone in the Republican Party from the leaders on down.

In fact, Milbank’s latest column is an apt illustration of why Republican smears and distortions regarding “Obamacare,” like the “death panels” canard, gained purchase in the minds of the public in the first place. While providing a laundry list of outright falsehoods that Ryan himself propagated about the ACA over the past two years, Milbank only takes the time to directly refute one of them. The rest of Ryan’s broadsides, while clearly cast as negative, are nonetheless left to lay there mostly intact. Are these statements just partisan hyperbole, or demonstrably untrue? The reader gets no real help from Milbank.

Whether you call it journalistic laziness or editorial economy, this is all too common. Over time, the slow accretion of these unchallenged falsehoods adds up, and then one day you wake up and a sizable portion of the American public believes a lie like Obama’s health plan includes a governmental “death panel.” This drip, drip, drip phenomenon is precisely what an academic study of the recent healthcare press coverage found feeds these kinds of falsehoods:

“Nonetheless, in more than 60% of the cases it’s obvious that newspapers abstained from calling the death panels claim false….

“Additionally, of journalists who did debunk the claim, almost 75% of those articles contained no clarification as to why they were labeling the claim as false. Indeed, it was very much a ‘You either believe me, or you don’t’ situation without contextual support….

“[Journalists] often times approached the controversy by also quoting one side of the debate, quoting the other, and then letting the reader dissect the validity of each side’s stance. Thus, in 30% of cases where journalists reported in their own words that the claim was false, they nonetheless included either side’s arguments as to why their side was right. This often just confuses the reader.”

Simply put, this behavior does a disservice to the press, the public, and to the functioning of our democracy. Still, though the media is due its share of the blame for allowing the ‘death panels’ meme to take root, it bears emphasizing that such a lie only gained legitimacy after numerous Republican party leader and elected officials, like Palin and Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, repeatedly claimed that death panels were an actual policy of the ACA.

By contrast, the aforementioned liberal web video—where a sinister Paul Ryan lookalike pushes an old woman in a wheelchair off a cliff—is hardly serious in tone and clearly symbolic. No one in his or her right mind would come away from watching it believing that the leaders in the Democratic Party are literally saying such a heinous act is codified in Ryan’s legislative language.

Now, one can always argue that the cliff-throwing symbolism goes too far, but then it’s perhaps worth reiterating that, as the “death panels” study showed, scale matters in these types of things. You simply won’t see a host of prominent liberals and Democrats flooding the op-ed pages and cable network airwaves constantly pounding home this disturbing “granny off a cliff” image. Instead, they are making a rather reasonable argument—that Ryan’s “premium support” plan for Medicare and “block grant” proposal for funding Medicaid so fundamentally change those programs that they effectively eliminate their current social safety net safeguards.

What Republican politicians like Ryan and members of the Washington press corps like Milbank don’t seem to understand is that the public isn’t angry about these draconian measures because of how Democrats have presented them, they’re angry at the proposals themselves. And if the former continue to think that the recent shift in the political winds toward the latter is simply a matter of messaging and timing, then they’re liable to learn a hard lesson—it’s not demagoguing when you have truth on your side.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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