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The Hartford Courant (Connecticut)

Unequal Charges: When Balanced Is Not Fair

Tuesday morning, National Public Radio and The New York Times had stories about how the presidential campaign is starting to get "rough." The information adduced to justify the assertion is essentially the same in both reports. On the one hand, we learn that Republican John McCain has accused Democrat Barack Obama of cavorting with terrorists based on his serving on a community board with a former member of the Weather Underground. On the other hand, we learn that Obama has pointed out that McCain was a member of the Keating Five.

In both cases, the reporters treated these charges as essentially equal and thus self-canceling, stuff to be filed away under "political tactics," "he said/she said" or the province of mere "strategic gambits."

It is precisely this type of reporting, devoid of context and the ability to discern the relative historical import of a public figure's actions, that has rendered the American people stupid in a civic sense.

There is no way that serving on a community board with someone whose background involved radical politics is in any way equivalent with a U.S. senator knowingly participating in one of the biggest influence-peddling scandals in the history of the Congress.

First of all, activists are not always able to choose the people with whom they serve on local boards. Moreover, if this associate, Bill Ayers, had done anything wrong, he had long since paid for it by the time Obama, then a Chicago community organizer, came along to share the occasional monthly meeting with him.

In contrast, McCain's participation in the Charles Keating affair was completely volitional. As a senator from Arizona, McCain was very happy to help deregulate the banking industry in ways that were destructive to the financial well-being of the public, provided that he received financial help for his senatorial campaign in return.

It was only after McCain's perfidy was discovered that he "renounced" his participation in the scheme. And he did so only when censure by his colleagues (or worse) was looming in his future. When we talk about the Keating Five, we are talking about one of the most brazen examples of corruption in one of the biggest financial scandals (the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s) that this country has ever known.

Reading and listening to what passes for the "liberal press" in the popular imagination, you'd never know anything about the key differences in these two examples of presidential campaign tactics.

The political right has understood for years that the goal of "seeking balance" in news delivery (something, by the way, most intelligent adults in other developed countries see as neither possible nor desirable) can be manipulated time and time again in their favor.

Conservatives correctly see it as an effective means of making the trivialities they want to circulate significant. They know that the Mara Liassons of the world have no stomach for "discernment" of the truth. Reporters, meanwhile, understand that their desire to remain "in the loop" and out of trouble with the right-wing attack machine is really their paramount concern.

Democracy is not possible under these conditions.


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Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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