This year's presidential election will be a contest between truth and lies. Don't think it's that stark? Let's compare how the media handled two incidents. On Feb. 16, philanthropist Foster Friess, a major backer and adviser to Rick Santorum, cracked a joke that became a media sensation.
In an MSNBC interview with Andrea Mitchell, who asked him if Mr. Santorum's socially conservative stances would harm his "viability," Mr. Friess lamented that other issues, such as the economy and national security, were being eclipsed by the focus on sex. Then he quipped, "You know, back in my days, they'd use Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly."
That's an old one, but because it raises the issue of moral volition, all but humorless feminists usually chuckle. But listen to this from The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart: "Friess' stupefying, backward and dangerous response had jaws dropping from coast to coast. ... The view espoused by Friess is dumb and grim." He finished by describing the idea of Mr. Friess having White House access someday as "terrifying."
Mr. Capehart is also terrified by defining marriage as a bride and a groom, so it's not all that surprising that Mr. Friess' joke scared him silly.
Over on CBS.com, Lucy Madison reported the incident with a headline proclaiming, "Foster Friess: In my day, women 'used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives.' "
Ms. Madison explains, deadpan: "Friess' implication is that if women hold aspirin between their legs, they won't open them." Ah, now we get it. Thanks, Ms. Madison.
Likewise, the Associated Press' Julie Carr Smyth and Steve Peoples reported: "Foster Friess, the main donor behind Santorum's 'super PAC,' created a stir Thursday when he suggested on national television that aspirin used to be an acceptable method for contraception."
No, he didn't. He told a joke. Mr. Friess, whom I know as a friend, often cracks jokes to lighten very serious discussions. He regards a sense of humor as one of God's finest gifts to us.
Contrast the media's thrashing of Mr. Friess with the kid-glove treatment they gave North Carolina Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue after she got caught on tape Sept. 27 saying, "I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won't hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover."
The tape reveals that she was serious, without a hint of irony. But the Raleigh News & Observer's political blog ran this headline: "Perdue jokes about suspending congressional elections for two years." The article itself said it was "unclear" whether Perdue was "serious."
USA Today's Catalina Camia, under the headline "N.C. Gov. Perdue: Suspend elections for Congress," began her report with this benefit-of-the-doubt lead:
"Was North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue joking when she suggested holding off on elections for Congress?"
Two weeks ago, President Obama showed how to play this game. Caught in a hurricane of reaction against his administration's tyrannical order to Catholic hospitals to offer insurance covering contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations, he pretended it was still being negotiated. "It became clear," he told a hastily arranged Feb. 10 news conference, "that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option."
Reality check: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in January gave hospitals one year to comply - or lose federal funding.
A Wall Street Journal editorial noted that when a reporter had asked, "Just to be clear, so it's giving them a year to comply rather than giving them a year to in any way change how they feel or the administration to change how it feels," a senior official replied, "That is correct. It gives them a year to comply."
The media took no interest in this, uh, contradiction. As the year unfolds, Mr. Obama is counting on them to skate over his prevarications but apply a microscope to the Republican candidates, including jokes by supporters.
With that kind of backing, an unscrupulous politician would be tempted to stretch the truth to the point of snapping it in the electorate's face. Especially someone who spent his formative, community-organizing years in Chicago, absorbing the ruthless tactics and contempt for truth expounded by his guiding light, Saul Alinsky.
Alinsky died in 1972, but his acolytes schooled young Barack Obama. Nobody knows what's in anyone's heart except that person and God, but Alinsky is probably having an interesting afterlife.
In "Rules for Radicals," he wrote: "Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to ... the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom - Lucifer."
In the Bible, Jesus describes Lucifer - that is, Satan - as "the father of lies." Rick Santorum, in a 2008 speech, quoted Jesus on this very point. Now he is being crucified for it by media that no longer care for truth.
Apparently inspired by Satan, Alinsky wrote: "All values and factors are relative," which means you can use lies if they work better than truth.
I had a taste of this in a debate years ago at the University of Tennessee with a top official from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). We were debating the use of library Internet filters. When I mentioned that the ACLU had sued to force a local government to adopt an ACLU policy, he got laughs by saying that "nothing Mr. Knight says is true, up to and including the words 'and,' 'if' or 'the.' "
Later, as we rode in a student's car, I asked him, "You know I told the truth, and yet you misled those students into thinking I had made it up." He shrugged, grinned and said, "Ah, it worked, didn't it?"
What we need now is someone who can talk over the intelligentsia's heads to the American people, who can discern a lie or recognize a joke if given half a chance.
Robert Knight is a senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a columnist for The Washington Times.