Target Practice

The pros and cons of blasting Betsy McCaughey

Former New York lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey has been much in the news the last few days, and she’s been wearing a great big target on her back. On Monday, The New Republic published its profile of McCaughey, a classically vicious take-down that portrays her as not just a serial disseminator of false health care claims but also more than a bit unhinged. (The phrases “blue-state Sarah Palin,” “pathological alarmism,” and “too bizarre to describe” all make an appearance.) Tuesday, she was a guest on MSNBC’s Morning Meeting, where her would-be sparring partner, Rep. Anthony Weiner, could barely get a word in for the first half of the segment, so eager was host Dylan Ratigan to quarrel with McCaughey.

The week’s mini-flurry follows an earlier wave of attacks of varying intensity on McCaughey’s credibility from sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC News, Rolling Stone, Politifact, The Daily Show, and numerous writers and bloggers, most notably The Atlantic’s estimable James Fallows.

There’s a good reason why so many in the media, under prodding by liberal activists and advocates, have set their sights on McCaughey: she distorted the debate on the Clinton health care reform efforts with an infamous, error-riddled New Republic article—the magazine’s “original sin,” for which this new hatchet job is apparently penitence—and she’s been turning in a repeat performance this year, flacking an assortment of untruths, exaggerations, and slanders. McCaughey is a reliable font of misinformation, not an honest partner to debate, so some “naming and shaming,” in the words of Spinsanity co-founder Brendan Nyhan, is in order. What’s more, the ridicule has been effective—as Ben Smith notes at Politico, during the current go-round McCaughey has been “nowhere near the player she was in 1994.”

The latest wave of attacks on McCaughey, though, prompt a question: At what point is enough enough? This sort of journalistic calling-out isn’t likely to dislodge misinformation once it has taken hold, after all, so it serves two functions: to discourage other news outlets from giving credence to false claims, and to promote a culture of honesty by punishing fabricators. Is there a point at which those goals have been achieved—as much as they will be, anyway—and we can move on?

In trying to answer that question, it’s worthwhile to separate the new TNR story and the Ratigan interview. While its piece feels a bit belated, The New Republic had unique institutional reasons to challenge McCaughey, and the article, by Michelle Cottle, doesn’t seem to have sparked misgivings among commentators. “I think making McCaughey a pariah is a great thing—she deserves it,” Nyhan said in a brief interview Tuesday afternoon. “If we can get everyone to agree that she’s constantly dishonest, then that’s a good thing.” In a recent blog post, Ezra Klein agreed, calling the TNR take-down “unabashedly welcome” and likening it to “ ‘Inglourious Basterds’ for the health wonk set.”

It’s hard to argue with any of that—but Klein’s analogy, while apt, is also unsettling. The latest Tarantino film, after all, is an indulgent revenge fantasy, a piling-on of abuse at an indefensible target. The Ratigan segment (which neither Klein nor Nyhan commented on) creates the impression that something similar may be going on with McCaughey—that journalists may be lining up to take their crack at the piñata. The result leaves one uneasy, and not just because Ratigan doesn’t really connect. For one thing, while the concerns of Jamison Foser and Jason Linkins are a bit overstated, putting McCaughey on TV does imply a certain legitimacy. Against that concern, what is the corresponding benefit, other than giving the host a chance to take a scalp?

By this point, any media outlet that’s been paying attention has made a decision about McCaughey’s credibility. Will The Wall Street Journal—which chose to run an op-ed by McCaughey on Aug. 27, well after the Times, the Post, ABC and Politifact had lobbed their grenades in her direction—change its judgment now? And as long as McCaughey has safe harbor at places like the WSJ editorial page, does one more heaping of abuse make a difference? The campaign against McCaughey has been welcome, but barring radical changes in the media environment, if we’re talking health care again in 2025, she’ll surely find an outlet for her claims again. The key is how the rest of the media responds.

This is the other danger, one that both Nyhan and Klein note—the possibility that by focusing on McCaughey personally, we may overlook the deeper patterns she has been able to exploit. As Klein writes, the problem is that “McCaughey isn’t just a liar. She’s an exciting liar”:

That’s not very helpful in the policy debate, but it’s very useful in the media debate… McCaughey might be something of a uniquely deceptive individual, but she’s taking advantage of a structural weakness in the system.

The upshot is that we need to address that “structural weakness”—not, at this point, keep competing to see who can do the best job of filleting McCaughey.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.