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ON THE MEDIA / JAMES RAINEY

They're also wagging fingers at Obama

September 25, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

It's been two weeks since I praised journalists and a couple of fact-check outfits for exposing John McCain's lies about Barack Obama.

Maybe Obama thought the media had given him a free pass. Not so.

Now some of the same mainstream media outlets and websites have called out the Illinois senator for his own series of dispiriting distortions.

In recent days, Obama unfairly charged that McCain seethes with intolerance for immigrants, wants to leave the nation's healthcare systems dangerously unregulated and can't wait to throw old folks' Social Security savings wholesale into the volatile stock market.

Several outlets have helped take apart the anti-McCain attacks, with one of the most thorough and scathing reports delivered Monday by Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. After flaying McCain last week for his disingenuous advertising, Marcus said Obama was guilty of descending "to similarly scurrilous tactics on the stump and on the air."

In the New York Times, Michael Falcone knocked down one of the attacks on McCain and wrote: "By making questionable assertions . . . Mr. Obama opens himself to the same criticism that Mr. McCain has faced about the truthfulness of his attacks."

The Times has criticized several Obama claims that the paper found unfair or untrue. No small irony there, since the McCain camp spent a couple of days this week having a hissy fit about the newspaper when it dared write critically about McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis.

With the campaign entering its final frenetic weeks, tactics are shifting almost by the hour. It was just days ago that McCain was taking the brunt of the media scorn for a series of distortions. The Arizona senator alleged, among other things, that Obama had called Sarah Palin a "pig," wanted to put kindergartners in comprehensive sex education classes and would raise income taxes on all Americans.

Multiple news outlets found those claims untrue. Obama, for example, has long proposed lowering taxes on anyone making under $250,000 a year.

PolitiFact, operated by Congressional Quarterly and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, has examined 119 claims by McCain and found 53 of them seriously suspect -- categorizing them as "barely true," "false" or "pants on fire," PolitiFact's designation for the most egregious untruths. Obama was found to be out of line less often -- with 34 of 122 assertions landing in those undesirable categories.

But schoolyard defenses ("He hit me first!" . . . "He hit me harder!") should offer small solace to Obama fans. This is the man, after all, who won many to his cause by pledging to engage in a new kind of politics.

Instead, in recent days, Team Obama has been playing an old and painfully familiar game.

Obama told a bunch of old folks at a campaign stop in Florida last weekend, for example, that McCain wanted to divert much of their precious Social Security into the volatile stock market.

In fact, McCain backed a plan by President Bush to allow Americans to put some of their Social Security in private accounts. But the proposal would have been voluntary, applied only to a portion of funds in the retirement system and been open only for those born after 1950.

The Post's Marcus concluded that Obama had lowered himself to "the kind of scare tactics he once derided."

Obama & Co. targeted Latinos with another misleading ad. The Spanish-language spot tried to taint McCain as an immigrant basher by tying him to provocative statements made by Rush Limbaugh. One problem: McCain has taken a much more moderate position on immigration and citizenship than the talk radio host.

The New York Times helped expose the "misleading" spot and its smarmy "guilt by association" approach.

Yet another distortion comes via an Obama ad that claims McCain would "reduce oversight of the health insurance industry . . . . Increasing costs and threatening coverage." FactCheck.org is among such websites to point out that what the Republican actually proposed is allowing the sale of health insurance over interstate lines, in hope of reducing costs.

Don't expect either side to stop the distortions any time soon. Campaign operatives have boldly stretched the truth many times in the past, but they once might have backed off when confronted with the facts. Now, politicians and their handlers seem more shameless -- repeating canards that clearly have been exploded by the press. One such example: Sarah Palin's claim that she stopped Boondoggle Bridge in her native Alaska when the facts show she supported the project until it had no hope of being built.

McCain absurdly blames the deteriorating tone of the campaign on Obama. If only his young opponent had agreed to a series of town hall debates, McCain has said repeatedly, everything would be much more civil. Right.

Obama, meanwhile, keeps promising to change our politics. But his desire for change seems to keep tripping over his desire to win.

Journalists like Marcus who try to set the record straight often face angry, and sometimes profane, denunciations from true believers on both sides. And those zealots are convinced they are right. After all, there is always someone who agrees with them out there in that vast badlands, the Internet.

People "wrote to say how brilliant I was last week when I criticized McCain," Marcus said. And now that she's on Obama's case? "They're telling me what a complete idiot I am."

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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