Bad journalism: it isn’t just a Manti Te’o thing. Remember Columbine?

Manti Te'o blarneyAs we try to unravel the whole Manti Te’o/”Lennay Kekua” mystery – is she dead? Is she alive? Does she exist? Was Te’o in on it or is he the biggest rube in America? – “sports journalists” (one of my favorite oxymorons, btw) are taking a right kicking, and deservedly so. Everybody out there who reported on the heartbreaking dead girlfriend story is now having to account for the willingness to push the narrative even once troubling discrepancies began to arise. Things like there was no death certificate. And Stanford never heard of her. And the police had no accident records. And shouldn’t there be hospital records? And wait – you’ve never met her? And so on.

I’m damned if I can figure out what actually happened with Te’o and “Kekua,” but there’s little question that an industry full of sports reporters got punk’d, and it happened because they simply failed to be, you know, reporters. The worst part is that this isn’t just a sports problem. The US is beset on all sides by journalistic malfeasance (witness the rise of the “post-truth” era in political coverage we saw last year) and we’ve built up a certain unhealthy tolerance to it.

I feel like I’ve seen this dynamic before. The specifics of the Te’o debacle – media organizations enthusiastically running with a story as full of holes as the Notre Dame D line in the BCS Championship game – reminds me of another instance of reporting malpractice a few years back.

You probably remember Columbine. I know I do. The tragic school shootings, which happened less than 15 miles from where I now sit, left a permanent scar on my community, and I think many of us who aren’t even Colorado natives took it personally, as if our own children had been targeted. In times of distress, we naturally rely on the institutions upon which our society rests: family, government, the press, and for a huge majority here, the church. Unfortunately, our institutions let us down. The police response at the scene was worse than useless. The official investigation was a travesty. And while the local Christianity industry did yeoman’s work colonizing the city’s grief for its own purposes (one local minster, the Rev. Don Marxhausen, went so far as to say he felt like he’d been “hit over the head with Jesus”), the local press committed the ultimate journalistic sin: it lied intentionally.

I wrote about this back in 2009, as we observed the 10th anniversary of the shootings. As I said at the time, “the mainstream press values the narrative above the facts.”

They were goths! It was the Trenchcoat Mafia! They were targeting jocks, blacks and Christians! Cassie Bernall said yes!

Lie. Lie. Lie, lie, lie. And damnable, intentional lie. Local and national “reporters” could have been outperformed by monkeys with Ouija boards.

Not that the run-of-the-mill press bumbling came as any real surprise – journalistic malpractice is well-known in Colorado. But ineptitude is one thing. Outright, overt, premeditated lies are quite another, and that’s exactly what both of Denver’s mainstream papers – the Denver Post and the recently-defunct Rocky Mountain News – did when they ran the “Cassie Bernall said yes” story as fact. They knew, by their own admission, that it was false, so why did they lie? Well, the lie seemed to be providing comfort to a grieving city.

Take that as the foundational operating principle for a free press and see where it leads…

Thanks to reporting of Westword and Dave Cullen, then doing Pulitzer-worthy work for Salon, we now know the truth about a great many things, including the “She Said Yes” myth of Cassie Bernall. As the story linked above explains, the papers continued to report the Christian martyrdom story as fact for days after they learned it to be false. The famous exchange between Bernall and Eric Harris never happened, but the myth made for better copy, so they went with it.

I’ve never been willing to believe a word the Post prints without independent corroboration since.

Where does it end? In a riotously deregulated world of 24/7 “information,” newspapers, broadcasters and online media wage open war for share. Cash is the ends. At best, truth is a means. There is no meaningful sense of public interest anymore, not since Reagan’s FCC infamously declared back in 1982 that “the public interest is what they public is interested in.” So you emphasize facts and truth if, and only if, they make business sense. If the bottom line is better served by not looking too closely into the details of a good story, by embellishing for effect, or simply making shit up, then that’s what you do.

In other words, it doesn’t end. Not until our patience wears out and we begin insisting that reporters actually do some heavy lifting, that they ask the really hard questions. If our nation’s press is out of practice, we can even do this in baby steps. Start by asking the obvious questions. If you report that someone is dead, make sure they’re actually dead. For that matter, make sure they exist. If the evidence is sketchy, keep digging.

Also, what if we cared more about real dead girls than fake ones? Especially when they’re dead as a result of being intimidated (and sexually assaulted) by the football team.

Not only do we need to vent our frustration on the half-assed media organizations that are lying to us (by not watching, by boycotting their sponsors, etc.), we might also ask our lawmakers and regulators to reconsider the political decisions, bought and paid for by wealthy media interests, that enabled this mess in the first place. Let’s revisit the Public Interest Standard. The Fairness Doctrine. Tax structures that force family newspapers to sell to corporations when the scion dies. Broadcast ownership rules, including things like cross-media ownership and the old radio duopoly rules.

I’m not saying we have to turn the clock back to 1979, but a more productive future might begin with at least a thoughtful look at how things worked in the years before we lost our way and began auctioning off our collective soul to the most outrageous and irresponsible bidders.

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