Sunday, April 21, 2013

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

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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.