In my last post I noted that Mitt Romney is on the stump simply making things up. And in another post from April 26 I took a stick to Secretary of State Rice for not realizing that there is no Soviet Union anymore.
So what do these stories have in common? (Yes, there are politicians we’d do well to keep an eye on at the center of both stories, but that’s not the answer I’m looking for here.)
The problem is the reportage of these stories. In both cases, prominent political figures – a senior administration official with a PhD and a man who would be king – stand before audiences and say things that are demonstrably inaccurate. And in both cases, journalists at some of America’s premier press organizations dutifully type away, not bothering to even note the errors, and in the process help promote falsity as fact.
It’s one thing for a news agency to adopt a code that says “we just report the facts and we’ll leave it to the reader to make truth of it.” But America isn’t well served when the leading agencies of the Fourth Estate adopt ethical codes that say, “know what, we’re getting out of the fact business, too.”
In what meaningful way do Mark Landler of the New York Times and Perry Bacon, Jr. of the Washington Post, the two reporters who gave us these important stories, differ from transcriptionists? If their stories conveyed the facts – in this case that Rice mistakenly called Russia the “Soviet Union” and that a presidential candidate made reference to French marriage trends that apparently don’t exist and fabricated a link between a mass murderer and video games – there might be some value. As it is, all they have done is provide a wider audience for error and prevarication, and in doing so they have attached the long, proud reputations of their papers to the process of disseminating disinformation.
If this is the best a newspaper can do we’re better off without it. Better that a few hundred people at Regent “University” walk away misinformed about Seung-Hui Cho than the countless thousands who now have the lie in their heads thanks to the Post. Better that we not know Rice missed the fall of the Iron Curtain than to have the continued menace of the Evil Empire reinforced in the minds of our nation’s less informed citizens. If a public figure tells a reporter that his hands have morphed into flippers, and the reporter (who can clearly see that no, those aren’t flippers, those are hands) writes, without a hint of incredulity, that “Sen. Wackhat today announced that his hands have turned into flippers,” that reporter no longer serves any useful function to the public.
There simply must be a distinction between how a paper reports “my hands have turned into flippers” and how it reports “the sky is blue.”
Maybe this is part of why mainstream media outlets continue to lose mindshare to blogs and alternative media. Despite the fact that we have to sift through a 99:1 noise-to-signal ratio, it’s at least helpful to read people who are not ethically constrained from reporting what they plainly see right before their eyes.