Sunday, April 21, 2013

Get It Now, Get It First, Get It Wrong, Redux

Latest Newspaper Column:

One of the most aggravating features of our multi-network, Twitter-driven, twenty-four-hour news cycle is something that invariably happens in the wake of a horrible event like last week’s bombing at the Boston Marathon: driven to get something, anything, out there, the cable news channels, the airwaves, and the Twitterverse became veritable fountains of misinformation. Apparently, the old journalistic principle that you didn’t go live with something unless you’d verified it with at least two sources is as dead as Walter Cronkite. Now what they report on is what’s been “reported,” whether or not said “report” is actually true or even from a credible source. Hey, they’re not lying. All they’re saying is that someone else said it. Such is the sorry state of “journalism” today. 

So in the aftermath of the carnage, unsubstantiated rumors and gossip became “reports”, which were breathlessly passed on but which quickly became discarded as new and more lurid rumors took center stage. The device was a pipe bomb. There were two other devices found that hadn’t exploded. No, three. Twelve people were dead, among them an eight year old girl who’d come to see her Daddy run the marathon. A Saudi national had been arrested running from the scene. And, of course, before the echoes of the blasts had died down and the wounded were still bleeding in the streets of Boston, conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of the online nuthouse Infowars were proclaiming that the whole thing was a government conspiracy. (When an Infowars “reporter” asked if the bombing was a “false flag operation to take away our civil liberties,” Governor Deval Patrick’s three-word response was a lesson in how to handle stupid questions: “No. Next question.”)

The wave of BS reached a crescendo on Wednesday when CNN said there were “reports” that a suspect had been identified. Then there were “reports” that there was a suspect in custody. Then there were “reports” that there wasn’t. Finally, the Boston FBI office released a statement refuting the story: “Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack.” Once can almost hear the exasperation as the release goes on to say: “Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.” 

Yeah, good luck with that. 

The part about “unintended consequences” brings to mind one of the most pernicious effects of misinformation: if you say one thing today, and say something different tomorrow, there are thousands of the above-mentioned conspiracy theorists out there who’ll insist that the correction was not an attempt to set the record straight, but is part of a cover-up. For example, after the Newtown massacre, one incorrect MSNBC report that killer Adam Lanza (originally misidentified as his brother Ryan) had left his Bushmaster semi-automatic mass murder weapon in his car is still being seized on to this day by callous gun nuts to “prove” that the government is lying about assault weapons to promote the “gun control agenda.” Of course, these are the same people who won’t believe anything else ever reported on MSNBC, but you can’t expect consistency from crazy people. 

Sure enough, as soon as it was revealed that the “Saudi national” who was supposedly taken into custody was being questioned as a witness, not a suspect, commenters at the right wing website “the Blaze” were proclaiming that the President was “protecting his Muslim brothers.” 

I know we can’t forbid news organizations from spreading misinformation (darn that pesky First Amendment!). But there ought to be some kind of required warning label on all the crap the news media spreads in the immediate aftermath of a horrible crisis. Something like a disclaimer in the ubiquitous “crawl” running across the bottom of the screen: “Warning: thanks to the near-total erosion of journalistic standards, the so-called ‘information’ you are receiving in this broadcast may be based on rumor, half-truth, prejudice, completely unfounded speculation, or the person on-screen just pulling allegations out of their rear end because they have nothing solid to report but don’t want to just stand there looking like a goober.” If we’re going to be so consistently misinformed by our media, we should at least be informed of that fact.

Dusty Rhoades lives, writes, and practices law in Carthage.


Randy Johnson said...

One I heard was that it was a plot to divert our attention from that darned old gun background check bill.

Dory said...

I heard on ABC CNN had 'problems.' Geo Stephanoplus offered the fact that CNN is all news 24/7 as a reason for the slip ups.

I watched ABC for the entire event, thought their coverage was excellent.

Mark Terry said...

Amen, Brother. If you want a fascinating read that also demonstrates just how dangerous the echo chamber of modern journalism can be, read "The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America's Rush to War" by David Willman. In it he follows the timeline of how the media covered the anthrax attacks, where the sources came from, etc. It's not necessarily the focus of the book, but I found it very disturbing, because you would get retired law enforcement or terrorism people speculating, then the media jumping on it and reporting it as fact, then government officials reporting what the media said as fact, which reinforced the echo, which made law enforcement people shift the focus of their investigation... frightening.

Anonymous said...

What's lacking is a measure of self-regulation. News organizations should have some mechanism in place to call "Bullshit" on each other.

One may think that this is letting the foxes guard the hen house, but I look at it this way: Better self-regulation than Congressional regulation. Congress is made up of politicians who, for the most part, are perpetually running for reelection or the next big prize. None of them are experts, yet they try to write laws governing finance, technology, and so on with no clue as to how those things actually work.

The problem with this idea is that you have three networks and three 24-hour news outlets. Waiting for one of them to step up and take the lead is going to take longer than the wait for Zombie Michael Jackson to announce his world tour.

Celine said...

I'm still in favor of "post a lie, pay a fine" regulation for mass media. If you publish an easily-fact-checkable falsehood, you have to pay a significant amount of money AND publish a retraction with the same amount of emphasis as the original falsehood was given. I can't come up with any more-effective proposal that doesn't run afoul of the First Amendment, and this one should* be very popular with the "take responsibility for your own actions" crowd as well.

* But won't be, because when it comes right down to it, those people are all "responsibility for thee but not for me or anyone I approve of".