Imagine how the press corps would react if an important member of Hillary Clinton’s campaign team were indicted for selling crack. If the story were true, it would be bannered by major papers and network newscasts. If merely a rumor, it would likely begin life as a garish headline on, say, the Drudge Report before filtering up through cable news to major newspaper pages and network newscasts.
That’s largely what happened in the 2004 campaign, when false rumors of a John Kerry affair made a minor media splash in February, and again with the Swift Boat Veterans fraud which dominated cable news for much of the summer (Extra!, 11-12/04).
Debunking such rumors, whether they’re about Swift Boats or affairs or, as with Sen. Barack Obama, the canard that he went to an Islamic religious school, often only gives more respectable media the opportunity to repeat the charges.
For propaganda to work, it need not be shown to be truthful, but only to flood the media, crowd out actual news, muddy the issues with accusations and leave people wondering exactly what is true.
If there is an “anti-Giuliani” candidate among top Democrats—one to whom every single negative story seems to stick—it’s former Sen. John Edwards. The fact that Edwards’ campaign has so far yielded no actual or even imagined scandals hasn’t protected the candidate from a plague of picayune stories focusing on his expensive haircuts, his large home and his past association with a hedge fund.
The stories, so common they are referred to by serious journalists as the “three H’s,” are said to reveal hypocrisy on the part of Edwards. Reporters suggest that his advocacy for the poor, a major plank in his political platform, is undermined by the fact of his personal wealth.
A Dallas Morning News report (7/21/07) on Edwards was typical: “Critics have questioned whether Mr. Edwards’ personal wealth and opulent lifestyle make him the appropriate person to talk about poverty. His $400 haircuts and $6 million home have brought chuckles and jeers.”
The “three H’s” trope is so institutionalized that New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney (9/10/07) used it as a measure of campaign literacy. In one report he argued that Iowa and New Hampshire’s voters “display a command of issues, a sophistication about the contest and its candidates, an understanding of history and an eagerness to participate that sets them apart.” One example was a New Hampshire voter who “talked breezily in the kind of shorthand used by political consultants and analysts”—that is, he referred to Edwards’ “three H’s.” That’s what counts as sophistication to a Times reporter.
After running once more through H’s 1-3, PBS NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill asked, “Does that lead to a fourth H, hypocrisy? And how is that affecting his campaign?” This is the media assumption that lies behind the constant references to Edwards’ wealth—that it’s hypocritical for the wealthy to advocate for the poor.
Actually, if Edwards promotes policies that help the poor at the expense of his own class interests, that would demonstrate integrity, not hypocrisy. A rare mainstream acknowledgement of this appeared in Eric Pooley’s August 29 Time magazine profile of Edwards:
Pooley pointed out that Edwards favors putting greater economic demands on the rich, including boosting capital-gains taxes and closing the loophole that allows hedge fund firms, like his former employer, to get taxed at just 15 percent—policies, one suspects, that are the real reason why Edwards is viewed dubiously by the corporate media. As Pooley put it, “Here’s what would truly be hypocritical: if Edwards spoke out on behalf of the disadvantaged while pushing policies that benefit the rich.”
The obvious implication of the media’s peculiar definition of hypocrisy is that since virtually all politicians are wealthy, none of them can advocate for the poor, or should. And somehow that’s not a problem.