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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Palin Lied, People Died" And Other Media Fictions

The widely reported news that Sarah Palin didn't know Africa was a continent has been revealed to be a hoax. The news "source" supposedly inside the McCain campaign was an impostor, who even created a phony research institute to give legitimacy to his claims, and a faux blog on which to confess being the source and to threaten further revelations about Palin. The hoaxer was particularly devious, because he managed to leak this false information to Fox News, the only major news organization which attempts to treat Republicans and conservatives fairly.

The Palin-Africa hoax will haunt Palin the rest of her career, because the popular media culture always makes hyperbole out of negative stereotypes of conservatives. A Yahoo or Google search of "Palin continent" shows that this report has been run in hundreds of major newspapers and websites around the globe. By contrast, add the word "hoax" to the search term, and you will see that only a relatively small number of mostly conservative website reveal the hoax.

The media was willing to believe and spread the Palin-Africa hoax because the media (even Fox) implicitly and explicitly has accepted the "Palin is dumb" story line. This caricature of Palin stems from a host of other myths about Palin created and spread by the media, such as false reports of book banning, cuts to special needs funding, and membership in a secessionist party, to name just a few. Yet these hoaxes have become truth in the popular culture.

Perhaps the best example of hoax which becomes media truth is the "Bush lied, people died" parable of the Iraq war. No matter how many times you point out that Bill Clinton and his administration claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that numerous Democratic senators reached the same conclusion in 2002-2003 based upon the same intelligence available to President Bush, and that the leaders and intelligence agencies of numerous allies reached the same conclusion, it makes no difference.

An interview by Marvin Kalb of Bill O'Reilly for a PBS special, held in late September but only recently aired, illustrates this point. In questioning O'Reilly about why O'Reilly originally supported the Iraq war but now feels it was a mistake, Kalb presumed that O'Reilly should feel he was lied to by the Bush administration:

MARVIN KALB: Do you feel now that you were lied to then?
MARVIN KALB: You don’t feel you were misled?
BILL O’REILLY: No. I think they made a mistake. I think that these Intelligence agencies, what they uncovered was wrong. It wasn’t a lie. It was a mistake.

Kalb so believes that Bush lied, that he couldn't leave it alone. Kalb came back to the point with further questioning later in the interview. After a while, Kalb the interviewer became Kalb the interviewee when he didn't receive the answers he liked:

MARVIN KALB: Right. Have you found, Bill, in your book, your work as journalist, observer, historian to a degree—do you think that presidents lie routinely? I hear this a lot.
BILL O’REILLY: You know, I’m not going to tell. I don’t make those assertions unless I’m 100% sure that there is a lie. I think that the people that say Bush lied about Iraq are irresponsible. Most of them are gutter snipes. There is no evidence that I’ve seen that he lied about Iraq, not one shred of evidence. And I know these people. Look. I had George Tenet on my program. I looked him in the eye. Now, is Tenet lying to me? Maybe. But if you look me in the eye and tell me something, Professor, I’m going to believe you. I’m going to believe Tenet. I’ve got no reason not to believe Tenet. Tenet walked up to me and he said, "I told Bush X, Y, and Z. That’s why Bush did what he did." So I’m going to believe him. Okay? You show me evidence Bush lied, fine. I’ll look at the evidence. You say he lied without that evidence, I’m not going to have respect for you. Lie is a pretty serious word. You could get just shot in the old west. Now we throw it around like, "Oh, yeah. You(?) look at this. Look at that." You better have that evidence before you make that accusation in my world.
MARVIN KALB: And you have had no evidence of a Bush lie.
MARVIN KALB: Nothing that has come up in the course of explaining the war.
BILL O’REILLY: Not that I can see.
MARVIN KALB: And in the latest
Bob Woodward book, when he gives you documented evidence--
BILL O’REILLY: I read Woodward’s book. There is no outright lie assertion there.
MARVIN KALB: There are three or four areas, though, if you read the book carefully, where he quotes what it is that Bush said to him, to others internally, and what he then said to the American people. He said that in the book.
BILL O’REILLY: Did Woodward say in the book, and if he did I missed it, "Bush lied?"
MARVIN KALB: No. Woodward has a different way of doing it.

The Bush Lied, People Died mantra has entered the popular media culture and is taken to be true. You can still buy t-shirts with the slogan. No one, however, chants "Bill Clinton lied, people died" or "Joe Biden/Hillary Clinton/John Kerry/Tom Daschle/John Edwards/Chuck Schumer lied, people died." Only Republicans get such treatment.

So too, the Palin as dummy who doesn't even know that Africa is a continent caricature, has entered the popular media culture. Years from now, distinguished media icons will quip about how the Republicans once nominated someone for Vice President who didn't even know that Africa was a continent. And oh how stupid and lacking in an understanding of history are those Republicans, for not believing what the media tells them.

UPDATE 11/13/2008 -- NY Times finally publishes a story about the Palin-Africa Hoax. Question: Why didn't The Times lead in exposing the hoax as vigorously as it leads in exposing classified secrets regarding the war against Al Qaeda? Why has The Times been days and weeks behind on this story, when the false "identity" of the hoaxster was exposed months ago?


  1. It's confusing, but it may be necessary to review the article again.

    The hoax is not that Palin doesn't know that Africa is a continent. That remains a story attributed to unnamed members of the McCain campaign.

    The hoax is that a handful of press outlets looking for a scoop recently attributed the comment to parties who claimed to be the source for this, who were not really the source. That's the hoax.

    The original source for Palin's comments — which she has yet to deny — remains unnamed members of the McCain campaign.

  2. Alex, have you ever heard the term McCartyism? You're practicing it right now.