Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

There will be lies

Jerry Stratton, October 20, 2010

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

The media is desperate to have something to crow about on Wednesday, November 3. Currently, they’ve focused on Christine O’Donnell’s upstart campaign for the Delaware senate seat. But as I wrote in The Coming Crisis, as the election looms closer, the media is getting more desperate. In their latest debate, Democrat Chris Coons misspoke the establishment clause of the first amendment during a discussion about whether the doctrine of “separation of church and state” is part of the constitution. Christine O’Donnell called him on it. Coons couldn’t even name the non-religious portions of the first amendment.

What was potentially election-shaking was that average-person O’Donnell knew the text of the first amendment and what freedoms it contains, and lawyer Chris Coons could only paraphrase one fragment of the amendment.

What wasn’t amazing is that the media out-and-out lied about the exchange to make it look like the opposite happened. In reports of the event:

  • Some media reports “summarized” Coons’ portion of the exchange to remove the misstatement.
  • Other media reports simply rewrote what he said to make him look less ignorant.
  • Many media reports also cut up what O’Donnell said to make it sound like she was questioning the existence of the establishment clause, and not whether it builds a wall between all religion and all government.

The most egregious version of the exchange that I’ve seen was from CNN writer Stephen Prothero. Prothero rewrote Coons’ misstatement of the first amendment to make it look like Coons got it exactly right:

Coons, who seemed surprised by the question, responded by quoting chapter and verse: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” To which O’Donnell, channeling Homer Simpson, asked, “That’s in the First Amendment?”

You can argue that Coons did not materially change the meaning of the first amendment’s establishment clause when he quoted it as “Government shall make no establishment of religion”, but you can’t argue that he was “quoting chapter and verse”. Coons changed one very important word and left out others. It doesn’t speak well for Yale Law School.

Constitutionally, “separation of church and state” as a doctrine is relatively new; when it was written the establishment clause meant what it said, which was that congress can’t establish a state religion, as England and France both had at the time. The colonists were well aware of the dangers of establishing a state religion; many of them had fled either England or France because they were of a different religion than the state required.1

Practically, “separation of church and state” means a lot of different things depending on who is saying it. I remember growing up in the seventies and thinking it meant that priests, and by extension, nuns, shouldn’t be involved in politics. This was growing up in rural, religious Michigan; I received that impression solely from the media of the time. It was only when I happened to mention it to my seventh or eighth grade teacher in Catholic grade school that the ridiculousness of the belief became clear (she didn’t even have to say much; it was just the look that she gave me).

And judging from the media’s and the left’s reactions to O’Donnell’s mainstream Catholic beliefs, some people today think that the phrase means that no one with religious beliefs should be involved in politics.

O’Donnell was initially, and very obviously, questioning Coons on whether the phrase “separation of church and state” appears in the constitution; and at one point she was either questioning that or questioning where Coons’ mangling of the establishment clause appears. It doesn’t matter which interpretation you take for the latter, however, as in either case O’Donnell was right. Neither phrase appears in the first amendment.

But that didn’t stop Republican bloggers from believing the media’s portrayal of events, because they have already bought the media’s narrative about O’Donnell, and that narrative can’t involve being smarter than a Democratic lawyer. To the credit of Ace at the Ace of Spades HQ, he did post a retraction when it became clear he’d been had:

I keep getting into this fight with readers.

Readers tell me, “The media lies; don’t trust them.” My response is usually “Well, they spin, they suppress, they distort, but they usually don’t lie per se. A reporter who directly lies would be disciplined. Their own reputations mean too much to them to just flat-out lie.”

I, the hyperpartisan crazy conservative blogger, keep taking the media’s side on this point, of outright lying.

I keep being proved wrong by the Suckers of Cock I am defending.

But it’s important to remember that it isn’t just that the media lies, but that the media lies because they can. They understand that the alliance between the tea party and the Republicans is a fragile one, and the Republican leadership and some Republican blogs have allowed the media to turn O’Donnell’s campaign into a wedge in that alliance. The media is exploiting this because they can. They know that they’ll get away with it at least for a few days and that’s all it takes.

That’s what makes it so frustrating when someone like Ace buys the narrative, even if only for a day or two. The media as it currently stands will always smear anyone who stands in the left’s way. But they aren’t as blatant when they know they’ll be immediately called on their lies. At the same time as this twisting of O’Donnell’s words was playing out, the left and the media were trying to push a smear against Sarah Palin for getting the year of the revolution wrong and saying that 1776 happened in 1773. Palin never mentioned the revolution. She was talking about the Boston tea party, which did happen in 1773. The jokes about Gwen Ifill’s lack of historical knowledge began immediately. Everyone who was pushing that interpretation walked it back so quickly most people probably don’t even realize it happened.

They lie because they can get away with it, and when they get away with it, they keep lying.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. — United States Constitution (First Amendment)

In response to The coming crisis: We know it. We just don’t know what it is yet.

  1. One of my favorite sections of one of my favorite books uses France’s persecution of non-Catholics as its central event; when the fictional Musketeers go to La Rochelle in The Three Musketeers, Dumas is using a real event: a siege against the Huguenots in 1627-28. France’s persecution of Huguenots resulted in many Huguenots coming to the colonies.

  1. <- Learning to lie
  2. End of media ->