Thursday, November 13, 2008

Journalism 101: Sources of Misinformation

From Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole to the final season of HBO's The Wire (with the chillingly prophetic Network in between), there has been a large number of narratives spelling out the numerous dangers that can occur when members of the free press lose sight of the discipline their vocation requires and start playing havoc with the rules. Think about this, the journalists' role as laymen who speak truth to power and the populace is so vaunted that they have become an archetype that could be used in cautionary tales.

Given that, how did we come to this?

For the click-averse, the link leads you to Richard Pérez-Peña's NYT article about the, admittedly brilliant, hoaxters Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish, who have created a conservative mouthpiece (serving several roles in the movement, from simple Giuliani supporter, to McCain advisor) out of whole cloth. With this simple, yet elaborate, ruse, they managed to snooker a surprising number of political publications and legitimate news sources; this list includes MSNBC, The New Republic, the LA Times, and Mother Jones.

What's alarming about all of this is that the tenet being ignored here is one of the most basic in the world of journalism: Verify Your Sources. Here's a question: If this essential step is being played fast and loose with, what else is going by the way side?

Obviously, there are many factors at play here. The institutional desire not to miss out on a hot story, and the 24 hour news cycle's dependence on said hot story in order to remain relevant play a large part in the problem. So does the Atwater/Rove/Cheney/Schmidt school of manipulating the media; and it's doubtful that we would be this far gone without the existence of Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Ollie North and FOXNews.

However, the real problem here is that it's been around for so long that we have become somewhat inured to it. This problem first reared its head when Rush and Newt's army caused a stir with Vince Foster's suicide and other Whitewater insinuations; they took a situation that looked somewhat hinky and turned it into Something Very Shady. The media bought in not long thereafter by colluding with the right wing and creating the hugely overblown Lewinski scandal (no pun intended), where an intern's stain on a dress almost got a president impeached. The French still chortle about this one.

From there it was a mere hop, skip and a jump to having Rove and Cheney feed items like "flip-flopper," "invented the internet," "president you could have a beer with," "Hussein supports Al Quaida," "yellow cake," "mission accomplished," Valerie Plame, "Swiftboat Vets," et. al. directly onto the front page.

You'd think with this track record, in addition to the enormous embarrassments that were Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Jeff Gannon (along with the recent bit of Bush White House chicanery, the placing of Pentagon mouthpieces in positions to spout right wing propaganda directly to news organizations), that responsible journalists in the media would've learned their lesson. Alas, as Salon's Glenn Greenwald often points out, there are no repercussions for these failings.

What used to be grounds for dismissal is now dismissed with a shrug and a handy platitude for an excuse; either "we should've done our job better" or "we only report this because it's what people want to know," depending on the situation. Then it's only a matter of coasting along until the next kerfuffle pops up.

Seems like all of that fun had at Sarah Palin's expense for not verifying they were speaking to Sarkozy was a bit premature, eh, guys?

Then again, if offenders were forced to adhere to a month of Limbaugh's diet, we wouldn't have to worry about the problem for too long. (See what I did there?)

Update - For the record, Gorlin and Mirvish did not fabricate the "Sara Palin did not know Africa was a continent" story. Apparently, that is still all too real. - TBO


Anonymous said...

Oh yes, I am so glad you brought up Jayson Blair (from my neck of the woods, no less). Amazing how this garbage can single-handedly bring down the likes of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.

Cross shameless self-promotion:

Anonymous said...

One more thing: when I worked on "Hardball w/Chris Matthews," the...ahem, star, would invariably burst into the studio, henchmen and producers buzzing about, and he would literally yell: NUMBERS, NUMBERS, NUMBERS PEOPLE. WE NEED HIGH NUMBERS TONIGHT.

That is what drives the media nowadays, more so than ever. Dan Rather lost his job because he bought into this junk. And if even Rather can get seduced by exclusives (garbage or not), then...what? We're doomed.

JJisafool said...

One thing I think we're missing is how easy it is to be duped by something you really want to believe. All the best hoaxes tap into narrative niches we already have.

I hate being duped. Hate it. Mainly because I blame myself for being gullible. Less the not checking than the willingness to believe.

Recontextualizes her response, too, because she actually was the victim of jerkdom. Doesn't make me like or respect her any more, but there it is.

Anonymous said...

living this life is so extremely and increasingly frustrating. i don't know who first said it but in a previous life's work, a mentor said we need to work SMARTER not harder.

the trickle down effect of someone who is supposed to be providing a service but is not doing their job properly (in the name of ratings or money or whatever self-serving purpose), is that every individual has to fill up their day trying to discern fact from fiction, safe from unsafe, healthy from unhealthy, just from unjust, instead of just being able to trust that what we are being fed is honest and true and good, so that we can free up some time to focus on evolving, innovating, creating, living.

it's exhausting. AND UNNECESSARY.

sorry for the long run-on ranty sentence.

but how do we hold the media accountable? any ideas?

JJisafool said...

That's a problem journalism has long had - no real accountability. They claim professional and protected status, and fulfill a hugely important need in democracy, yet they have nothing like the bar and take nothing like the hypocratic oath.

Dangerous as it may sound, I feel as though they should not get any legal protection for sources and should get no privileged access until they form some kind of industry oversight that has actual teeth, can revoke the status of lazy or incompetent or disingenuous journalists.

anna said...

I don't know... I don't think it's the media's responsibility to keep us well-educated and informed. Am I honestly supposed to believe the same network that brings me Hollywood gossip and game shows could accurately bring me information about my government?

I think this illustrates the lapse in our school systems than it does any lapse by the media. And as long as we let our schools crumble in favor of fixing our media, we'll keep getting more of the same.

the beige one said...

If the British can expect stellar journalism from the same network that airs What Not To Wear, or Benny Hill, I don't see why we have to be different.

Your point tying the problem to education is well taken, though...

Anonymous said...

I'm also in favor of having SOME sort of outlet (even ONE)that is reputable and can be trusted (a la BBC, as the beige one mentions). I don't think it's asking for much to hold one measly network responsible for informing its viewers accurately.

I have increasingly less and less time to hunt down shit and would appreciate if I could actually sit down, watch/listen to a BBC-like network, and be done with it; not have to start an hour's worth of debunking or vetting or triple-checking info. after the newscast is over.

JJisafool said...

And, Anna, just to clarify my position, I'm not suggesting anyone but the media fix the media. It would by ludicrous to suggest a dime that could go to education should be diverted to the government intervention with the media.

I do think we should push them to reinstitue ombudsman programs, which have been cut out of most newsrooms. Just one of many ways to start.