Tell the media to stop spreading falsehoods– even from amateurs

Media | Building/Consensus
What’s the difference between a falsehood spread by a journalist and one spread by an amateur who gets up on a soapbox when he writes a letter, or calls a radio show, or posts to the web? Well, after the journalist is exposed, the publisher will acknowledge the error. (The fabricator will write a book, option a movie). When an amateur does it, the falsehood just hangs in the air; the publisher couldn’t be bothered to correct it.

Consider some recent “soapbox myths” I’ve come across from the hoi polloi over the last few months:

  1. Why go after Martha when the Enron executives are getting off scot free? blurbs a typical celebrity on Inside Edition, or someone posting to the SaveMarth website.
  2. When are we going to start seeing the bodybags coming home on the evening news? cried out a caller to C-SPAN’s Washington Journal call-in show.
  3. Here’s a simple solution [sic] to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Merge the West Bank with Jordan, suggests an earnest letter-writer to the Boston Jewish Advocate.

(Well, for clarification, here are some brief answers. 1. Enron’s CFO, Andy Fastow finally plead guilty last month. He’s expected to get a ten-year sentence, and has to forfeit $23 million. The feds may have gotten Fastow’s to turn evidence in order to convict Skilling and Lay. These crimes are not as cut-and-dry as insider selling, and have taken a long time to build cases. 2. Watch PBS’s Newshour: at the end of each broadcast, there is an Honor Roll read of each servicemen who died that day. I can’t answer what the networks do. 3. This was retired as a solution formally in 1994 as part of the Israel-Jordan peace accords.)

I pointed this out to my father when I was in New York a few months back. “Listen to “Mike and the Mad Dog'” he said, referring to Mike Francesca and Chris Russo, the sports talk show hosts on “Sports Radio” 660 WFAN. “These guys are very smart. They know their stuff. Somebody calls up and makes a stupid statement, Russo lets him have it.” Now that I think about it, having called up commercial talk radio before, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Contrast this with the milquetoast “thank you caller” offered by Brian Lamb to the loonies who dial up C-SPAN. As they are treated fairly, they keep calling back with the most inane theories. Compare also to the snooty silence of editors in responding to critical letters. Here’s how Slate’s Jack Shafer explains in an article about how the Washington Post let itself be beaten up in a letter by the subject of a story who couldn’t be bothered to be interviewed:

Alas, nearly all daily newspapers follow the rigid and somewhat phony doctrine that they deal in only facts. Under this conceit, as long as a daily newspaper believes it got the facts right and gives the aggrieved some sort of right of reply as the Post did it has done its job: no need to comment further in its pages about shades of meaning, interpretation, or context, or to deliver a death blow to the whining subject of one of its stories nor is it newspaper convention to respond, even if the need were felt.
“The Passive Washington Post, 11/25/2003. The subject of the story, incidentally, was Iraq Survey Group head David Kay

Also, as the editor of the Jewish Advocate tells me, his main responsibility is not to “answer all the questions raised, but rather to provoke dialogue.” Well here at Civilities, we like to promote that one of the main points of dialogue is to get questions answered. A newspaper should respond to challenges and points of clarification at a pace commensurate with the publication period (As Shafer points out, the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Review of Books regularly give responses by authors.) Even a show like Inside Edition should make attempts to check some of the inane pronouncements by celebrity non-experts. What they should recognize is that they form part of the record of media experience, and that record should be correct.