As Atrios pointed out yesterday, PBS’ Gwen Ifill appeared on the show I haunt, “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and commented on the 2004 Vice Presidential Debate with some audible annoyance:

And you know the funny thing? I didn’t even ask about Mary Cheney. They obviously, the candidate, the Democratic Candidate, Senator Edwards, just felt the need to bring it up apropos of nothing and then claim later that he was just trying to express his sympathy and solidarity with the vice president’s daughter.

This is somewhat at odds with the transcript of the actual debate, which shows Senator Edwards’ comments to be in response to this question:

IFILL: The next question goes to you, Mr. Vice President.

I want to read something you said four years ago at this very setting: “Freedom means freedom for everybody.” You said it again recently when you were asked about legalizing same-sex unions. And you used your family’s experience as a context for your remarks. Can you describe then your administration’s support for a constitutional ban on same-sex unions?

To which Atrios then adds: “Over to you, Adam.” My first, honest reaction to this is a manly, “Don’t ask me! Ask MO! He writes for this site now, and he was there! Oh, why do you hound me!?” [Adam puts the back of his hand to his forehead and stumbles blindly from the room.]

But after returning to the room, it turns out that I do have a few things to say about this.

First, I can’t fault “Wait Wait” for not calling Ms. Ifill on this one. We’re a satirical newsquiz, and our celebrity guest segment is pointedly about asking people about obscure things, like mosquitos through history or the Indonesian tabloids or imagiro.* If you want to come on and spin at us during your brief interview segment, we’re not going to confront you about it, or even notice, probably. We have a list of stupid questions to get to. This probably makes it easier to understand, for instance, our August, 2003 episode, when Ken Mehlman claimed to be a “beautiful ballerina who is the toast of Moscow.” It was a little uncomfortable, maybe, but we didn’t call him on it.

Beyond that, I’m no more qualified to talk about the matter than anybody else. But I’m going to talk anyway. Because I do have a theory about why Ms. Ifill said what she said. And it’s not the Universal Lying Media Theory, which explains a lot of unrelated phenomena but has never been conclusively proven (or at least if it has I’ve never read anything about it in the papers). No, my theory is that Ms. Ifill believed exactly what she was saying. Because it was the Story, and stories are powerful.

Let me illustrate - do you remember the 2004 debates, when both John Edwards and John Kerry talked about Mary Cheney’s sexuality, causing a gigantic brouhaha, with conservatives crying foul and liberals scoffing at their hypocrisy? Take a second - do you remember it?

If you remember that, you remember it wrong. In fact, the incident at the Vice Presidential debate caused very little uproar. It was actually one of the only moments of anything approaching warmth or humanity between the candidates; Cheney made a noncommittal “loyal lieutenant” type of remark, and Edwards delicately reminded everyone that Cheney has a personal stake in the issue without forcing a response. Cheney thanked Edwards. They switched topics. It was civil. There was no substantial uproar until the next Kerry/Bush debate. If anything, most analysts were impressed with how cordial the exchange was.

It’s true. It’s fair to say that Cheney was not angered by this and it’s fair to say that the press didn’t make a giant deal about it. And it’s fair to say that Edwards was never called to the carpet for muffing the chance to dive in and rub Cheney’s nose in Bush’s fuzzy policies towards lesbians like Mary Cheney. Well, maybe that last one isn’t exactly fair to say. But it sure was fun to say.

The point is that the Story has now become “Kerry and Edwards harping on the fact of Cheney’s gay daughter.” And it’s important, particularly to the press, especially to the Washington press, to collectively remember what the Story is. My guess is that Gwen Ifill isn’t remembering what the debate was actually like, she’s remembering her part in the Story of That Thing That Kerry And Edwards Did That Even A Lot Of Moderates Thought Was Over The Line.

The fact that this Story isn’t true, and that at the time Ifill, like most other Americans, considered Dick Cheney’s feelings about his gay daughter a question worth asking… well, that fact is gone. G’bye. We live in the world of the Story, not the world of the truth. Conservatives get that. Liberals are still trying to learn it.

Maybe I’m too credulous. But I believe that Ifill’s statement was a mistake rather than a conscious deception, a convenience of memory that can go right up there alongside common egregious misremembrances like “I voted for McGovern” and “I never liked disco” and -yes- “I was only following orders.” When the story changes, we tend put ourselves somewhere safe within it.

And if you believe that Ms. Ifill is trying to curry favor with conservatives, know that she’s got a long way to go (look here and here, for example). To them she’s still another liberal mouthpiece. Knowing several Washington reporters, I can tell you that the deep desire to agree upon the Story might be the strongest force at work there, right up there with “the need to believe that the sad-ass sandwiches at the buffet are safe to eat.” So if you need a rationale for why such a statement was made on a funny newsquiz, apropos of nothing, you probably don’t need to look much further than those sandwiches.

And besides, ask Mo! He was there! Take him, not me….


*Literally “origami” backwards, imagiro is the ancient Japanese art of folding animals until they resemble bits of paper. Not surprisingly, it never gained widespread popularity.