09 October 2010

Ruse News

Recently “Fox & Friends” morning news show on Fox News Channel was fooled into reporting some faux news about jet packs. The crew on the Kirby couch reported that the City of Los Angeles had committed to buying 10,000 units at a sky high price tag of $100,000 per jet pack. The morning news anchors wondered about the cost to the city during an economic downturn and raised concerns about prospective flight paths.

When I heard the report, I thought that the $1 Billion total price tag was too steep to be true. As it turns out, it was. Within 40 minutes of running the original jetpack video, Steve Doocy announced that the story was not true. What he did not mention was that the source for the story was the Weekly World News and that they were punked by ruse news. This quick correction did not stop CNN from chuckling about this flight of fantasy later that day on “The Situation Room”.

Clearly, broadcasting this Jet Pack story was an embarrassment to Fox News. But, the news peg itself was not completely unfathomable considering the strange and wasteful earmarks that were part of $787 Billion spending in Porkulus.

During the prior week, several renounced British publications definitively reported that the United Nations had designated Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman as the Ambassador to Outer Space. This story was quashed when other journalists pressed the United Nations comment and the UN denied that UNOOSA (United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs) had made such a designation. Yet considering the news of late, such a decision was not beyond belief. Unfortunately, without a plenipotentiary head of an outer space alien welcoming committee, slack jawed yokels are still endangered in being abducted.

But even renounced journalists can be willingly taken in by ruse news as was epitomized by “Rather-Gate”. During the 2004 Presidential Campaign, former CBS New Anchor (and Managing Editor) Dan Rather jumped on a document that he thought impeached President George W. Bush’s National Guard Service record. The timing of reporting the Killian documents served as an October Surprise which could have turned the tides of the election. Former CBS Executive Vice President John Klein derided skeptics of this reporting by famously saying: "You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances (at CBS), and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.". But within hours, the Pajamajadeen convincingly showed that the typography was an anachronism. Basically, it used a Microsoft Word font which did not exist in 1972/73 and had been run through a copier 15 times to age the document. CBS went to bat to stick by the story along with hiring its expert witnesses who corroborated their employers’ position.

After two weeks, CBS conceded that using the documents were a mistake. An investigation panel concurred with the finding several months later but the damage to CBS News credibility was done. Standing by a flawed story for two weeks in the final stretch of a Presidential Election influenced much of CBS’ reporting. Executives mocking citizen journalists who had the facts dead to rights cast a pall on William Paley’s newsroom. Dan Rather retired in disgrace after 43 years with CBS News and now hosts a weekly show on HDNet.

A prominent political commentator who seeks excellence in broadcasting derives members of the Press Corps who seek sensational, scandalous and agenda driven stories to take cheap shots before moving to the next “fire” as the Drive-By Media. Rush Limbaugh sees great similarities between such shoddy journalists with aggressive gang activity.
They are exactly like drive-by shooters, they pull up to a congested area, they spray a hail of bullets into the crowd. It causes mass hysteria, confusion, mistakes, and misinterpretation, sometimes people and their careers actually die, and then the drive-by media smirks and they ride away, unnoticed in the excitement. They're never blamed, they're never held accountable.

It may be an uncomfortable analogy, but the comparison does seem pretty striking.

Let me suggested a few metrics when dealing with ruse news.

First, consider the stakes. Misreporting a jet-pack expenditure is embarrassing but wrongly slandering a Presidential candidate is serious.

A second suggestion is to discern the agenda. For a casual consumer of news, this may be difficult prima facie. Did the Editor rush publication and not properly vet the sources? Was this like an October Surprise? Was it an isolated incident or does it seem like a pattern of behavior?

Thirdly, consider the cleanup. Did the news organization quickly acknowledge the error. If it is serious enough, did they prominently correct the charge or was it basically buried on page D-9 where no one will see the errata? Or did the news organization dig in and fight naysayers or denigrate skeptics?

I do not believe that news should be delivered in a voice of God “That’s the way it was” approach. As long as it is clearly understood as opinion, it’s fine for news organizations to have some bias, as we look at the world and frame situations differently. But as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

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