Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The media’s lies work

Jerry Stratton, September 1, 2011

When a member of the mainstream media writes an article, they exaggerate—and lie about—what actually happened. When they write a headline, they exaggerate and lie about the article. And they will specifically spin the story to provide cover for inaccurate but bloody headlines.

Why do journalists lie? Because they can. It works. Today we watched a “scandal” story break out over the Tea Party of America’s weekend event in Indianola, Iowa. When I saw that Christine O’Donnell’s invitation had been cancelled, I expected it to be blamed on Sarah Palin. I expected, by the end of the day, an anonymously-sourced story saying that this was all Palin’s doing. I underestimated the press.

The story throughout the day has been about a see-saw of unsourced stories that, at no time, ever had a named or confirmed source quoted who knew anything about what Palin’s team had done. This was friend-of-a-friend reporting at its worst. It was high school politics, not journalism.1

The media does this all the time. They provide bad reporting that turns out to be wrong and then, rather than saying that they were wrong, they say that their subject changed their mind.

And we let it work! Over on the Ace of Spades, Ace wrote a smart post about how crazy this was—but in an aside wrote “and she is forever canceling appearances for one reason or another”. He bought straight into a media meme created by this kind of reporting. He provided no examples; when challenged, in the comments, he wrote that “I know she first said she'd be going to CPAC, then withdrew, saying she’d never agreed. CPAC thought she had. She said she hadn’t.” Read that a couple of times: in the first sentence he says he knows something that the second sentence makes clear he doesn’t. He just assumed, as the media reporting on it wanted him to assume.

Another commenter provided another example—of exactly this situation, in which Palin had always been saying that the One Nation tour was going to follow historical sites north, up the coast, and when they finished New Hampshire and took a rest, the press reported that the tour had been canceled. It wasn’t canceling the tour to follow through on the plans she’d stated from the start.

Now the commenter is just some commenter; but Ace is disappointing. The reason I used to have the Ace of Spades HQ on my very short blogroll is because Ace wrote insightful posts about how the media goes about its deceptions. And yet for all that, their deception still works on him.

As a journalist, you have three reasons not to name a source that you’re using in an article:

  • You have a source who wants to remain unnamed, and you are willing to stake your own reputation on the source’s reliability.
  • You don’t have a source. You’re just making it up, but “from an unnamed source” sounds a lot better than “from my ass”.
  • You have a source, but the source is so obviously unreliable that naming them would undermine the story you’re trying to pass off as reliable.

More and more, I’m getting the feeling that most of today’s unnamed sources are (2) and (3).

We are naturally trusting. We hear something crazy and we assume there’s a rational explanation that includes the person saying it being truthful. My first thought on reading the stories this morning was that someone at Tea Party of America looked at the schedule, saw a nice block of time before Palin’s speech, and offered it to a late-comer. Without thinking, hey, this late in the game why is that very desirable slot still available?2 Maybe it’s because we need more time for security and preparation for the biggest event of the day?

In the end, though, that’s just making excuses for a press that no longer bothers with silly concepts like verification and the difference between sources who are willing to go on the record and sources who are not. I’m reading these stories and I’m seeing practically no verified information. I have no idea who I can trust in this scuffle. I do know who I can’t trust, and that’s the people reporting on it using “unnamed sources” to support memes that we know they’ve used lies to push in the past.

In response to The Make-Believe Media’s New Normal: Whoever wins the election will be the new Sarah Palin. But they’re all acting like John McCain, obliviously unaware that the press might turn on them the moment they win the primary.

  1. The only journalist to adhere to old-school journalism’s standards was Robert Stacy McCain on The Other McCain.

  2. Seriously; the speech is on Saturday, and that slot wasn’t filled? If you want to speak to a lot of people at a tea party event and you are not Sarah Palin, what better time to speak than just before she does? There was a reason that slot wasn’t filled.

  1. <- Playing the media?
  2. Math-challenged Times ->