It’s happened…yet again. The conservative media, from cable news networks, to radio pundits, to columnists and bloggers…seem to be making a bad habit of disseminating false stories as “news.” The formula always seems to take the following shape:
1) An anti-Obama email, or satirical column (a column poking fun at the people who love to attack Obama, using an obviously exaggerated bogus claim) appears.
2) A well-known (but often dubious) right-wing blog reports the claim from the email or satire as if it were fact.
3) Conservative radio personalities, columnists, and bloggers go absolutely hyperactive in spreading the false story.
4) Mainstream media outlets (usually FOX News) repeat the false claim.
5) Millions of people hear the claim and spread it through their own emails/social networking.
6) The retractions…apologies…never come…or come too late to have any hope of undoing the damage done.
The current example (thank you, J, for bringing this to my attention): A humor blog ran a piece, purporting to have obtained a copy of Obama’s Columbia thesis. In the piece, the author claims that a Time Magazine reporter unearthed the document, and that it contained considerable criticism of the Founding Fathers, and the Constitution. A blogger at Pajamas Media, Michael Ledeen, who is also a contributing editor for the National Review Online…took the bait, unable to resist so-called “proof” that the president held contempt for the Constitution and its authors. Soon, the item was also carried on American Thinker, and comments began to appear on Twitter. It would not be long before Rush Limbaugh picked up the story, and ranted about it on his radio show…and as millions of people were misinformed, the number of Americans exposed to this lie growing every hour, it was perhaps inevitable that it would eventually appear on the FOX Nation website. Then NPR. Then US News. Then CS Monitor. Even after the story was proven false, and meager apologies had been offered…Lou Dobbs of CNN STILL decided to run with the story.
All because some who think they deserve to be viewed as journalists…didn’t bother to verify that a story was true before reporting it.
Of course…if we wait for retractions from the right-wing, we’d better not hold our breath. Rush went so far as to admit that the story wasn’t true, but then hedged that he’s sure that what he reported falsely…is what Obama is actually thinking. Michael Ledeen, who in many ways bears the brunt of the responsibility for this situation…shied away from a sincere apology, saying essentially that this is all Obama’s fault for not not making his actual thesis available for scrutiny.
Why is this so important?
As I’ve mentioned before, Mark Twain once said, “a lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is putting on its shoes.“ And remember…Twain said this well before the advent of cable new networks, email, and the internet. Now, irresponsibility on the part of the media has far more serious implications. If a lie is told…so many more will hear it. This raises the importance of three things: First, the members of the press and the media need to be EXTRA certain that what they are reporting is the truth. Second, the members of the media and the press, if they do report a story that is not true, must inform the public QUICKLY and THOROUGHLY….REPEATEDLY, if necessary. Third, there MUST be a form of accountability for those who do not adhere to the first two items I have mentioned.
Do you see the problem now? The third item, the accountability…does not exist. And because it does not exist, the first two…are not consistently adhered to. A lot of attention has been paid to the White House’s recent criticism of FOX News. Many have spoken/written in support of the criticism. FOX News, and its conservative allies, have attempted to push back, citing that they still hold themselves to be “fair and balanced.” Even Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) has stepped forward, calling for the President to apologize to FOX News for questioning its credibility.
Really? Take a quick look at the sheer volume of incidents reported on Media Matters, incidents where FOX was grossly incorrect, unforgivably partisan, and hopelessly biased. Don’t like that site? Try a search of all the “FOX News-related” items on Politifact. Go ahead…take a quick look around the internet, at all the sites that do little more than report on the inconsistencies in FOX’s reporting. Now try to find some similar results for CNN…or ABC…or CBS…or NBC…or MSNBC…you will find nothing comparable in terms of volume or severity.
So…good for the White House…glad they said something…but you know what? It’s not enough. We should be doing more than simply criticizing outlets like FOX. If I say something false and damaging about another person, depending on the circumstances I may be open to charges of libel, slander, or defamation of character. If that’s the case, then why can an organization go on television, radio, or the internet…and say something damaging, and heard/read by millions…and there are no consequences. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.“ If we accept this as true, shouldn’t there be some penalty for making the people “poorly-informed?“ The FCC fines a broadcaster if they say certain “four-letter words” on the air…but they can speak the most spurious and damaging lies, without retraction, and not be fined a single penny. And until this changes, organizations like FOX can continue claim to be “news,” and “balanced,” and “fair“…when nothing could be further from the truth.