Journos of the World, Unite!

Or, some basic ways to deal with McCain's "socialism" claims

Listen up, all you hard-working Americans! If Barack Obama wins the presidency, get ready to have your hard-earned money snatched from your noble, stoic, work-hardened hands and placed into the outstretched palms of the lazy and entitled! Get ready to see your values and those of other American Heroes vanquished by the assumptions of snobby, liberal elites! Get ready to be shipped off to a gulag or a Siberian work camp or a locale in south Jersey if you dare to express an individual thought! Because, my friends, the most liberal senator known to mankind is a big old Bolshevik, ready to shake up society, redistribute the wealth, and Robin Hood you right out of your slice of the American Dream!

Or, well, something like that. Because John McCain’s presidential campaign has, it seems, taken a fancy to a new talking-point buzzword (“terrorists” and “media elite” are so five days ago): “socialism.” As in, per Sarah Palin:

Taking more from a small business or small business owners or from a hard-working families and then redistributing that money according to a politician’s priorities—there are hints of socialism in there and that’s why I don’t fault or discredit Joe the Plumber for bringing that up, asking if that is socialism.

By which the campaign does not seem to mean “the economic system that has defined American government pretty much since its founding.” Instead, the campaign is using “socialism” not intellectually, but emotionally, as an attempt to stoke the flames of cultural animosity even further than its efforts with respect to race (Obama “palling around with terrorists”) and class (“elites” versus “Joe Sixpacks”). Indeed, when a McCain surrogate accuses Obama’s policies of being “socialist,” he or she is pitching camp smack in the middle of that rocky terrain where the Culture War meets the Cold War.

But socialism is not communism, and, come to think of it, our entire economy depends on infrastructure and programs produced by the government for public consumption, and, yes, paid for by citizens’ taxes…in other words, on the “redistribution of resources,” or, if you prefer, “spreading the wealth around.” Tax-and-spend, as a term, may be forever fused to the term “liberal,” but the fact is that taxing and spending is, in theory and in practice, what the U.S. government, you know, does.

So, then. The media find themselves in yet another quandary when it comes to campaign spin: How can we unpack a rumor without also tacitly endorsing it? How do we do justice both to text and subtext when it comes to this particular campaign strategy? Should we append an asterisk—”*NB, dear reader! We’re all socialists! Kinda!”—to each use of the word? Should we practice, as the AP did, a form of accountability journalism when it comes to correcting the record on allegations of socialism? Should we feature segments, as Chris Matthews did on Hardball yesterday, asking guests whether “socialism” is “a bad word, a naughty word”?

Well, probably not the latter. (Sorry, Chris.) But there are some basic ways for talking about the socialism charge without giving the charge credence—obvious, sure, but apparently in need of pointing out (sorry again, Chris). Among them:

1. Incorporate the Corrective into News Stories

Add a brief note of clarification next to a McCain campaign claim about Obama’s socialism. See, again, the AP story Liz noted. Feel free to do your own incorporation more gracefully—ideally, in your story’s lede. As in: “In an attempt to appeal to latent fear of the Red Menace, Sarah Palin today accused Barack Obama of harboring socialist leanings…” Or some such.

2. Write a Separate Story Clarifying the Corrective

Write a separate article, or feature a separate segment, unpacking the implication of Obama’s socialism. The Chicago Tribune—hedging the matter by asking socialists whether Obama “is one of them,” but still—provides a good example.

3. Fact-Check, Fact-Check, Fact-Check

Sure, the answer that would likely come up, in this case, is that Camp McCain’s claim of Obama’s “socialism” is “half true.” But at least a comprehensive fact-check would provide news organizations an opportunity to give context to McCain’s claim, and to divest the term of its more insidious subtext.

4. Columnists of the World, Step Up!

Un-spinning the spin, in a format unfettered by the constraints of hard-news stories: what a great way for political columnists to earn their keep. The New Yorker’s Steve Coll provides a fantastic example of the corrective role columnists can play here. Even MoDo could join in: I’m sure there are several excessively witty references to Dr. Zhivago or Castro or some such just waiting to be shared with the American public.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.