Journalistic Recklessness

It’s been no secret that John McCain running mate, Sarah Palin, has been less than popular. Uttering many gaffes during the last two months of the campaign, she was an obvious choice to attribute the failure of the campaign. People simply wanted to believe that she could say some of the stupidest things on the face of the earth because, after all, that’s what stupid people do.

After the election, Republicans were looking for some kind of reason to understand their loss. Democrats? Well they were happy to pile on anyone around and gloat about it. The media willingly became accomplices to any story that made sense. Bloggers? Reckless.

Such was evidenced by the appearance of Fox News political analyst Carl Cameron on The O’Reilly Factor where, of note, Bill O’Reilly appeared to be the pundit showing some restraint while Cameron nearly jumped through the television exclaiming amazing “facts” about Sarah Palin and “Senior McCain Advisers” throwing her under the bus. Some of these “facts” that came out, according to unnamed and uncorroborated McCain sources, included the juicy bit about Palin not actually knowing that “Africa was a continent” and the report that “South Africa was just the southern part of the country of Africa”.

The New York Times explains that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax taken in and spread by traditional media and exacerbated by bloggers who didn’t fact check or question the claims.

Let me break away from the reporting of facts here to explain a few significant truths.

  1. Believable lies have Truthiness.
  2. People tend to believe that which reinforces their expectations.
  3. Modern Day journalism is about being first, not being right.
  4. Bloggers are journalists too. Some of them suck though, just as some journalists suck.
  5. Trust yet verify.

Believable lies have Truthiness.

Reading the story from the Times, it is obvious to me that the hoax was easily playable because there was some cause to believe that Palin may have caused some significant problems internally for the McCain campaign. In fact, the hoax may be even more playable because there may be very verifiable claims in there (I don’t know, I’m just saying).

In essence, if the premise of argument is not verifiable truth, then it is supposed truth (or truthiness, in the words of Stephen Colbert) and supposed truth is shaky ground (e.g. if 1 multiplied by 0 equals 0, and 2 multiplied by 0 equals 0, then 1 must equal 2). Believable lies are built entirely on truthiness.

People tend to believe that which reinforces their expectations

The only explanation for a two-party system in America, from the perspective of non-Washington party elites, is to provide Americans a set of beliefs where they can buy in unequivocally to one party or another. Never was that seen more clearly than in this election where the political machine painted both candidates in certain ways and supporters, in some cases, nearly were sent into a frenzy over those expectations.

Ideas that Obama had terrorist ties were planted, stirred and we saw it at McCain rallies. Ideas that McCain was misogynistic were often bandied around by feminists and accented by stories about names that he would call his wife.

See, people tend to latch onto the evidence that supports their worldview. Palin was so vilified as being stupid that a Carl Cameron report, without verifiable evidence, implicating Palin as geographically awkward fit the expectations of the woman, and so was passed on as fact.

Modern Day journalism is about being first, not being right

In an era of 24 hour news cycles, news organizations (and news bloggers too) have taken the tact that it’s better to be first than right. Usually, that works out to some degree. However, there are notable instances where the information passed along as fact was incorrect,

Examples of this was the infamous “Rathergate” story, where President George Bush was implicated in a National Guard service scandal that was quickly refuted with real investigative journalism. CBS admitted they were wrong 12 days later and retracted the story.

Recently, we saw this same effect in the tech and business space when rumors were circulated that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a heart attack and Apple stock slid as a result. The rumor was later debunked and CNN, who reported the story first in the major news circuits, pulled the story back.

Bloggers are journalists too. Some of them suck though, just as some journalists suck

The ongoing debate over journalism in the blogosphere is a little tired. It’s my opinion that, regardless of credibility, research, J-school training, etc, anyone who reports “news” is a journalist. Journalists don’t get credibility from their George Washington University journalism degree, but by being right, thorough and objective. Not being right, not being thorough or being biased does not eliminate the status of “journalist” but it does affect the credibility of the journalist.

With that premise, bloggers can be journalists. In the Palin story, it seems that bloggers can be pretty shoddy journalists at that. In a marked contrast to Rathergate, where bloggers researched, fact-checked and eventually debunked the Dan Rather story as bogus, bloggers latched on to Carl Cameron’s claims of Palin stupidity. In keeping with the idea that believable lies have some elements of truth, they may have taken the report in good faith without research or simply verified some aspects of his claims and claimed truthiness on the rest of the story.

To me, reporting and disseminating reports that are partially true is as bad as reporting and disseminating blatant hoaxes. Bloggers on the right and left side of the political spectrum were guilty. Very few questioned the story on it’s merit, and those who did (like me) didn’t write our thoughts out in such a way to challenge the premises. Shame on us as well.

Trust yet verify

Reagan, whether you liked him as a President or not, had tremendous wise and insightful things to say about a wide variety of issues. One of his more famous quotes was, “Trust, yet Verify”.

I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. There are tremendous pieces of grassroots journalism happening in the blogosphere. Stories are being broken. Questions are being raised surrounding ethics, corporate governance, technology startups, etc.

Likewise, mainstream media continues to do a “good” job in bringing the news to people (Although, for fans of The Wire, producer David Simon challenged the media because, in his opinion, the real stories are being left unreported while the less important stories get too much airtime).

For bloggers, imagine the position you would have been in if you would have stepped up to the plate and pushed back on this story. You may have gotten hateful comments from readers who want to believe that Palin is just that stupid, but at the end of the day you would have been vindicated and seen as objective, hard hitting and thoughtful.

For news producers, imagine if you would not have run with the story. You would have maintained credibility, saved yourself the embarrassment of having to print or issue a correction, and you wouldn’t have looked stupidly petty.

For readers and consumer of information, imagine if you would have stepped back and simply not believed everything that was fed to you. Imagine if you could have looked at your television or computer screens, scratched your heads and said, “Something is fishy about this story”.

The lesson here is that everyone needs to do a better job. This is not simply a free press issue. Do what you want. It is a credibility and authority issue. Fox News, already perceived as being a propaganda piece of the Republican party, decided to either be perceived as not-that mouthpiece, or played a cooperative game with a fringe of the GOP looking to protect themselves for the next election cycle and in doing so, looked even more foolish. Bloggers look like idiots and amateurs for not knowing better. Readers willingly let their feelings and opinions be used as a pawn in a much larger political game.

All I can say is be careful next time. Your credibility – all of you – is on the line.

Read More