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What ever happened to media skepticism?
Written by Kerry Ashmore
Posted  8/15/2012
It’s painfully clear that many media people—yes, the so-called liberal media people—are being manipulated into spreading messages of hate, intolerance and, most recently, trumped-up scandal. Now, if the word "manipulated" suggests the media people are innocent victims, that’s not our intent. The "manipulators" are merely exercising their own freedom of speech, although sometimes in unethical ways. Many media people seem to have dropped the sense of skepticism that, if properly applied, would place some of today’s top stories squarely in the "recycle" (PC systems) or "trash" (Macintosh systems) folders; or, as we said in seemingly-more-skeptical days gone by, "spiked," (print outlets) or "on the cutting-room floor" (broadcast outlets). It’s our job—our public trust—to be skeptical and to put on the brakes when a so-called "story" will, by its very telling, help some and harm others, with allegations that probably can’t be proven.

The two recent non-stories that clearly illustrate this lack of media skepticism involve Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s allegations of so-called "Muslim extremist" influence at high levels in the U.S. government, and Congress candidate Mike Parry’s claim that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton "pops pills."

The likelihood that these stories happened as they were reported—while that is technically possible—is very slim. Publicizing these stories accomplished so much for clearly identifiable political entities that it’s very difficult to believe those entities were the accidental recipients of their great fortune. It’s up to the media people to "smell a rat" in these circumstances—to suspect that the situation is being orchestrated by those who will benefit from publicizing the story—and to sit on that story unless and until some credible evidence shows up. Had this been the case, the two stories in question would not have been printed or aired.

Who got the benefits from publicizing these stories?

In the Bachmann case, she got an enormous amount of face time on national and local media, which is good for her. Far more troubling, however, is the fact that her allegations—none of which had even a hint of credibility—were repeated over and over and over again, by the people we’re supposed to trust to give us a truthful account of the news. It simply isn’t enough for the reporter to say, "Oh by the way, we don’t have any proof of this." Spreading almost-certainly untrue allegations, even when accompanying them with the accused’s denials, helps the accusers and their (sometimes unknown) accomplices. Voters who respond to messages of hate and fear get activated by this sort of media coverage. A multi-million-dollar political strategy effort could not have done more to energize America’s bigots. Sadly, the truth doesn’t matter. The damage is done.

In the Parry case, the media’s failings were more local, but just as troubling. Media people might have thought they were pursuing the truth by "exposing" Parry’s accusations, which appeared to be baseless. In fact, they were doing just the opposite. For at least two days, the most credible commentators in the state spent much if not most of their efforts using the terms "Gov. Mark Dayton" and "popping pills" in the same sentence. The people who love to hate Mark Dayton have a new weapon for their arsenal. And it’s only reasonable for average media consumers to look at the flurry of coverage and conclude, "Well, there must be something to it, it’s all they’re talking about." At its very most innocent, the media people’s conduct leaves the public with what appears to be a legitimate question: Does he pop pills or doesn’t he? Sadly, the truth doesn’t matter. The damage is done.

Lacking any credible evidence, neither of these stories should have received any more than a passing glance from professional journalists. Holding back a juicy story takes some courage. But a halfway busy editor will nix dozens of stories in a day—stories that don’t fit the guidelines they’ve established for serving their audiences. Basic credibility should be the first test applied to any story that’s being considered. However, the push to be first, the push to be the most outraged, the push to be whatever, seems to have pushed basic credibility off the list of criteria that lead to using or not using a story.

When there’s great temptation to use what appears to be a big story, and yet it doesn’t have the credibility points a media person should expect of, for example, a church rummage sale story, the hand of manipulation is approaching that journalist’s keyboard. It’s the journalist’s duty to push that hand aside, and establish the credibility before using the story, even if the competition is leading with it.

Years ago, most of us media people got wise to the "my opponent is tipping over my lawn signs" story. When presented with the evidence—the vandalized sign, the terrified homeowner who claims to fear retribution if the sign is replaced, the impossibly eloquent "has it really come to this in our democracy" quotes—we grew skeptical. We realized that the supposed victim of the vandalism—the candidate named on the lawn sign—stood to gain a lot if we reported the story just as we found it. Even if we did the "fair" thing and gave the accused vandal-candidate a chance to respond to the allegation, the fact that we chose to print or air the story would present the accused as—at best—a schnook doing damage control. We couldn’t find any real evidence of exactly who tipped over the lawn sign, and we suspected that the whole thing was set up by the supposed victim. And we stayed away from the story.

Today’s media people—at all levels, especially the "highest" levels—need a new dose of that old-fashioned skepticism.

Northeaster Opinion