Why doesn't Barack Obama lie more often?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 12 2008 4:03 PM

Lies, Damned Lies, and Barack Obama

Why isn't Obama stretching the truth more often?

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This is exactly what's so puzzling about Obama's strategy—why is he paying any attention to the fact-checkers? So far, McCain has seen little blowback from lying. Polls show that he's perceived as more "honest and trustworthy" than Obama  and that the public believes his claim that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class. When MediaCurves showed the Obama-called-Palin-a-pig ad to a focus group of women, many came out thinking that Barack Obama had a gender bias. Some of these surveys might simply reflect McCain's post-convention, post-Palin bounce—and perhaps they'll recede as the weeks go on, especially if the media focuses on his attacks.

But it wouldn't be surprising if McCain's lies worked. In my bookTrue Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society, published earlier this year, I argued that in the digital world, facts are a stock of faltering value. The phenomenon that scholars call "media fragmentation"—the disintegration of the mass media into the many niches of the Web, cable news, and talk radio—lets us consume news that we like and avoid news that we don't, leading people to perceive reality in a way that conforms to their long-held beliefs. Not everyone agrees with me that our new infosphere will open the floodgates to fiction, but it's clear that the McCain camp is benefiting from some of the forces I described.

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In particular, McCain is feeding off long-held conservative antipathy to the mainstream news media, the same force that propelled the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth four years ago. The Swift Boat message was conceived on talk radio; in the months before they caught the attention of TV producers, the vets appeared on hundreds of local radio stations across the country to push the story that the media wasn't telling the whole truth about Kerry. By the time they'd raised enough money to run TV ads, the Swift Vets had built up a huge network of people ready to defend their claims. These networks managed to render fact-checking not just ineffective, but countereffective—when newspapers pointed out flaws in the Swift Vets' claims, the Vets' defenders would pounce, arguing that the very act of fact-checking proved that the media was in the tank for Kerry.

The same dynamic is at work in the Palin rollout: "The more the New York Times and the Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska, and she is an insurgent," Republican strategist John Feehery told the Washington Post. "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

Obama has inherent, obvious disadvantages in pushing a message in which "little facts don't really matter." For one thing, he's boxed in by his oft-repeated search for a different kind of politics. But given the tenor of the campaign, Obama's audience might be happy to see him take the low road. In the past, Democratic voters have been willing to accept lies. Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that in 2004, the Kerry campaign managed to convince Americans that 3 million jobs had been lost during George W. Bush's first term (at the time of the election, it was less than 2 million) and that Bush "favored sending American jobs overseas." (He didn't.) Kerry and others on the left repeated these claims often, and in time they took root.

The misstatements of 2004 suggest a category of lies that Obama could get away with—ones that the public is already primed to believe about McCain. McCain's signature policy goal is cutting out earmarks. But as the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen points out, in promising to veto all earmarks, McCain has inadvertently called for cutting some popular programs—including all U.S. assistance to Israel, which is technically provided through a kind of earmark. Of course McCain doesn't really want to stop giving aid to Israel; an ad that suggested McCain's cost-cutting zeal would lead to abandoning Israel would be as dishonest as McCain's sex-ed ad. But it might also be effective, reinforcing the idea that McCain wants to cut too much.

Or what about that 100-years war? Picture an Obama ad showing McCain saying that the war in Iraq will last 100—or even 1,000!—years. The ad patches in footage of McCain singing "bomb Iran" and describing all the devastating effects of war. Actually, that ad exists—a comedy group posted it on YouTube in February. Nearly 2 million people have watched it. It's hilarious, effective, and a complete lie. Obama's advisers should be pushing him to approve that message.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.