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The Big Smear | Political Waves

In 2003, before becoming either a senator or head of the short-lived Air America, Al Franken published a book called Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. His courage was astounding, considering the year and the political climate. Franken earned the ire of the right, particularly O'Reilly and Hannity at FOX News and ideologues led by Rush Limbaugh. At the time, many people were unfamiliar with the dynamics of innuendo, slander and outright lies legitimized by those in power. Seven years later, Al Franken has proved to be as courageous a legislator as he was a political commentator. I still can't watch FOX without thinking, "Lies and lying liars." Unfortunately, FOX continues to justify Al's early warnings.

This week, FOX News played a short clip of comments from a recent speech to an NAACP gathering by Shirley Sherrod, a Department of Agriculture employee. Ms. Sherrod spoke of her feelings in 1986 at being asked to help a white farmer while so many black farmers were being ignored. Sherrod's father had been murdered by a white farmer when she was a child. Her speech traced her personal journey through the maze of racism to the realization that it was not race, but the moneyed elite that created inequities. In her moving address, she made a case for classism.

FOX cherry-picked fewer than three minutes of commentary from Sherrod's forty-minute speech, taking remarks out of context and labeling them [overt racism] against white folk. The NAACP reacted with knee-jerk censure, prompting Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to demand Sherrod's resignation. The White House quickly backed Vilsack, then retreated when the NAACP reversed its position following CNN's prompt coverage of Sherrod's entire speech. When the white farmer and his wife -- the subjects of the 1986 incident -- called the FOX story hogwash, it became apparent that we'd all been had yet again.

The right has made an art form of distortion. They're past masters at selecting some factoid, twisting it into a pretzel of accusation and moral platitude, and pushing it down our throats whole and unexamined. They did so with weapons of mass destruction, with government spying on U.S. citizens, with torture. They practice the art of deception daily. Their leadership tackles the big, faux issues -- 'bankrupt' Social Security, death panels for grandma, the return of the Black Panthers, etc. -- while their footsoldiers muckrake. With nothing to lose, they proclaim everything a win. They will throw anything at the Democrats that might stick. They will push any button, frighten any citizen, or stain the name of anyone in order to spread doubt and disenchantment.

The Sherrod clip originally appeared on Andrew Breitbart's radical-right website, Biggovernment.com, which was also the source of the 2009 ACORN 'sting' video. The ACORN bit of theatre featured an outlandishly dressed 'pimp and prostitute' supposedly receiving from ACORN helpful hints for tax avoidance, human smuggling and child prostitution. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was an umbrella NGO dedicated to neighborhood safety, voter registration, health care, affordable housing, and other lower and middle-class issues. With over 400,000 members and 1,200 neighborhood chapters, ACORN received 10% of its 25 million-dollar budget from federal funding. Sting videos from both coasts were heavily edited with a bias toward employees of color and looped to run on FOX.

Responding to the outcry over videos gone viral, Congress voted to eliminate ACORN's federal funding. Democrats sidestepped conservative accusations that they were as corrupt as ACORN, and to this day Obama's history as a community organizer is linked to the scandalous, wholly contrived video that FOX called 'breaking news.' Although Congress's funding resolution was later nullified as unconstitutional, ACORN went broke and disbanded this year. The crucial services offered by ACORN are gone. The congressional Government Accounting Office (GAO) eventually found ACORN innocent of any wrongdoing. The GAO ruling, however, didn't make the evening news, allowing FOX's sting to brand ACORN as forever criminal in the eyes of the nation. We were snookered again.

In contrast, the Sherrod scam was caught very quickly, the truth of it spreading rapidly across the web and news agencies. Even Glenn Beck, a major voice of the conservative smear machine, called for Ms. Sherrod's rehire. The White House quickly offered an apology, as did Secretary Vilsack, who offered Sherrod a new position, which she is considering. The race card will always spell trouble for Obama in one way or another. The 'post-racial' meme of his presidency has increased the establishment's sensitivity to racism, even as the Tea Baggers have ratcheted up their assaults.

The NAACP has recently taken on factions within the Bagger movement. The predominantly white Baggers cry reverse racism, the impetus that catapulted Breitbart's tape into the limelight. Yet strangely enough, this obnoxious story of race baiting shows that we've made a bit of progress in terms of trusting propaganda. We lost ACORN to the smear machine but we didn't lose Shirley Sherrod or her inspirational story of acceptance and tolerance.

Another propaganda battle we can't afford to lose is the issue of climate change. Last year, Sarah Palin took great glee in telling Obama not to waste his time going to Copenhagen for climate discussions. A hacked series of e-mails from a climate center in Britain had given deniers fodder to cry hoax. According to Palin, "the radical environmental movement" was behind the "politicized" science of Al Gore and his ilk. Disagreement among scientists, blown up in a manufactured scandal dubbed ClimateGate, proved to the talking heads that climate change was the product of a liberal cult.

According to Media Matters for America, FOX and friends spent Earth Day exposing the 'fraudulent claims of radical environmentalists.' The aforementioned Andrew Breitbart called ClimateGate "high treason," suggesting capital punishment for NASA scientist James Hansen. The simplistic logic of this argument -- that disagreement among scientists is proof of anything -- is as stunning as assertions that snow and ice in February prove there is no global warming. (FOX never mentions the June heat index, the highest ever recorded worldwide.) But a lie doesn't have to make sense. It simply has to stick, which it did. Until now.

As reported by The New York Times, here are the findings of the Independent Climate Change Email Review: We need to set the record straight on this front, and decisively indict FOX as a chronically deceptive source of information. As [Paul Krugman] points out, "When the right-wing noise machine starts promoting another alleged scandal, you shouldn't suspect that it's fake -- you should presume that it's fake, until further evidence becomes available."

Somehow the lowest common denominator of human behavior -- smearing, muckraking, and distorting -- has trumped truth again and again, even under the auspices of a liberal administration. We must break this crude chain of anti-intellectual scandalmongering. It's time to stop the lies and the lying liars who tell them.

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