The Republican presidential candidates are right. The media do suck.
But not for the reasons the candidates complained about Wednesday night.
We in the media suck because we have rewarded their rampant dishonesty and buffoonery with nonstop news coverage. Which, of course, has encouraged more dishonesty and buffoonery.
Hence the aggravating behaviors that candidates doubled down on during the debate, based on lessons that we in the media taught them. To wit:
Lesson No. 1: Lie, but lie confidently.
Look straight into the camera, and with complete conviction, say something that is not true. Maybe your lies will get fact-checked later, but if your certainty can sufficiently excite pundits in the interim, no one will care (or notice) that you lied.
We saw this strategy successfully executed in the second Republican debate, when Carly Fiorina confidently described a horrifying undercover Planned Parenthood video.
The footage in question turned out not to exist. (At best, she was describing a reenactment.) But by the time her statements were checked, Fiorina had been anointed the winner of the debate, thanks largely to that riveting, shocking sound bite. Since then, any time someone has called her out on this missing footage, she has just claimed media bias (see Lesson No. 3).
No surprise, then, that on Wednesday the candidates lied boldly, and repeatedly, even when their statements were easily disprovable.
Donald Trump denied ever taking a dig at Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, even though the dig in question was on Trump’s Web site.
Chris Christie claimed Social Security money was “stolen” and that the system will be “insolvent” in seven to eight years, even though both claims are wrong. Fiorina recycled a statistic about women’s job losses that Mitt Romney used in 2012 and subsequently abandoned when it, too, was proved wrong.
And so on.
Fact checkers had lots of material to mine, but the candidates’ dramatic delivery — and the immediate plaudits they earned from talking heads — made post-debate truth-squadding seem pedantic and tone-deaf.
Lesson No. 2: Invent your own math.
This is related to Lesson No. 1, but more quantitative. Or less, depending on how you look at it.
In recent weeks, Trump has suggested that he can simultaneously cut tax revenue by trillions of dollars, protect entitlements from cuts and balance the budget. He’s also pledged to raise taxes on the rich while simultaneously cutting taxes for the rich.
This legerdemath, as a friend of mine put it, has proved successful; despite disobeying all laws of arithmetic, Trump’s policies have been characterized as coherent, fiscally conservative, even populist. Maybe this has something to do with America’s declining math scores.
In any case, the other candidates lived and learned. When Marco Rubio was asked why his tax plan gave the average rich person a bigger tax cut than the average middle-class person in percentage terms, Rubio decided he would just redefine how percentages work.
“Five percent of a million is a lot more than 5 percent of a thousand,” he countered triumphantly.
Likewise, after CNBC’s Becky Quick informed Carson that his flat tax would blow a $1.1 trillion hole in the budget and require spending cuts of 40 percent, their exchange went like this:
CARSON: That’s not true.
QUICK: That is true, I looked at the numbers.
CARSON: When — when we put all the facts down, you’ll be able to see that it’s not true, it works out very well.
So, you know, Q.E.D.
Lesson No. 3: If you can’t think of something better to say, just bash the media. (This is good advice for the media, too, as this column illustrates.)
At first it seemed risky when Trump attacked conservative darling and Fox News host Megyn Kelly for asking tough questions during the first debate. But his attacks paid off, earning him several news cycles’ worth of free advertising.
Accordingly, by Wednesday, the candidates had all learned to dodge difficult questions by accusing the moderators of bias. Usually, the charge was that they were too liberal. (Yes, CNBC, the channel that launched the tea party and employs the United States’ most famous supply-sider, is apparently a commie paradise.) Or they accused the media of not asking substantive questions, right in the middle of ducking substantive questions.
In the end, the biggest applause lines were all media insults. They came from Rubio, Ted Cruz and Christie.
Guess whom CNBC then crowned the winners of the debate? Rubio, Cruz and Christie.
Well done, gents. We’ve trained you well.
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