When should the paranoid style make the news?

I have just one small quibble with Rick Perlstein's excellent retrospective on political paranoia in today's Post. It involves Perlstein's contention that, in the current healthcare debate, the media are failing the public--not just by setting up a false equivalency between true and untrue claims, but also by lavishing too much attention on feverish distortions and those who advance them:

If 1963 were 2009, the woman who assaulted Adlai Stevenson [by smacking him with a sign at a United Nations Day in Dallas] would be getting time on cable news to explain herself. That, not the paranoia itself, makes our present moment uniquely disturbing.

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to "debunk" claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president's program [a claim during a Kennedy-era expansion of mental health care], or giving the people who made those claims to explain themselves on the air. The media didn't adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of "conservative claims" to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as "extremist"--out of bounds."

There are, I think, two problems with this argument. First, if 1963 were 2009, it wouldn't necessarily matter if the woman who smacked Adlai Stevenson got the silent treatment from the greater part of the TV news establishment. She'd still be lionized by (among others) Fox News and Rush Limbaugh--which would, in turn, be sufficient to make her a folk hero for a huge portion of the country. 

Given this, a real case can be made that--in the healthcare debate--highlighting the preposterous nature of certain claims and the troubling worldview of those who make them is exactly what journalists should be doing. The bogus claims in question need to be scrutinized if they're going to debunked: it's not enough to simply ignore them, because they're already being taken seriously by millions.

One way to do this is by focusing on the claims themselves. Another way is by allowing their proponents to describe their grievances in detail. Here, for example, is Chris Matthews' telling interview with William Kostric--the pistol-packing New Hampshire dude who carried a sign about watering the tree of liberty (i.e., with the blood of tyrants) to Barack Obama's Portsmouth, NH town hall last week:

Yes, Matthews heightened Kostric's profile by having him on his show. But he also revealed that Kostric is essentially a guy who thinks things have been going downhill for the last two centuries. And this, in turn, tells us something important about where some of the anti-healthcare-reform animus is coming from.

Thoughts, readers?

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