Saturday, June 14, 2008

News and rumors of news

The AP's Nedra Pickler has committed another offense against good journalism. Which, I guess, is pretty much synonymous with saying, "Nedra Pickler has written another news article". The one to which I refer this time is Obama Web site aims to 'fight the smears': Wife's alleged use of word 'whitey' is among many rumors AP/San Francisco Chronicle 06/13/08.

This article provides an example of a chronic Establishment press malfunction. She reports on a rumor, and gives a "this side says, the other side says" account. But she never says that the rumor itself is horse-poop. The article gives no evidence that she made the slightest effort to verify the rumor independently. Stenography is her job. This side says, the other side says.

Before I sort through this particular was of flotsam, I recall that in a time still in living memory, respectable newspaper and wire services normally didn't even mention rumors unless they could verify the underlying story. It was the Gennifer Flowers 1992 story in the Star tabloid in which for big bucks she spun a tale about her multiple sexual encounter with Bill Clinton that was the tipping point. Under oath during Ken Starr's witch-hunt, Clinton himself later admitted to one sexual encounter with Flowers. There was never any good evidence produced of any other.

Flowers went on to spin more tales. By 1999, "liberal" pundit Chris Matthews was inviting her on to Hardball to tell more baseless tales, this time about multiple murders in which both Bill and Hillary Clinton were involved.

Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby described this sad aspect of recent press history in his post of 01/19/07:

Just how low had their standards fallen by the summer of 1999? Consider a pair of TV appearances in which the sitting president of the United States—Bill Clinton—was accused of a long string of murders.

In this case, Clinton’s accuser was Gennifer Flowers, the Little Rock woman who had played a role in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. During that race, Flowers authored a two-part report for a supermarket tabloid, The Star; it alleged a torrid, twelve-year affair with then-governor Clinton. Flowers was paid $150,000 by the Star; eventually, she’d receive more than $500,000 for making her various claims about Clinton. But her Star piece was "riddled with demonstrable inaccuracies," as Jonathan Alter quickly noted in Newsweek. "Flowers claims she met Clinton at the Excelsior Hotel in 1979 or 1980," he wrote. "The hotel didn’t open until late 1982." And this: "Flowers claims to have been Miss Teen Age America, 1967. She wasn’t - that year, or any other." But then, Flowers’ assortment of clownish misstatements turned out to be rather lengthy. "Among other things, Flowers’ resumé claimed degrees from colleges she’d barely attended, membership in a sorority she’d never joined and jobs she’d never held," the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Gene Lyons wrote in 1998. In 1995, she had written an entire book about her alleged twelve-year affair without naming a single time and place when she and Clinton were alone together. Nor was Flowers an especially dignified critic. In her book, she recalled the first time she met Hillary Clinton. "I was shocked," she thoughtfully wrote. "She looked like a big fat frump with her hair hanging down kind of curly and wavy. She had big, thick glasses; an ugly dress; and a big, fat butt." By the summer of 1999, this was the person the press had adopted as an unfailing vessel of truth.

In his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit, Clinton - using an expansive definition of "sexual relations" which had been mandated by the court - testified to one such act with Flowers, in 1977. He said the act wasn’t intercourse. Washington’s pundits were thrilled, of course; on this basis, scribes routinely said they "now knew" that Flowers had been telling the truth all along. In an unintentionally comic formulation, Frank Rich wrote that Clinton had "conceded having an affair with [Flowers], disputing only its duration." Only its duration! Flowers said the "duration" had been twelve years; Clinton said it was more like ten minutes. But this was close enough for journalistic work in an increasingly fatuous era.

At any rate, Flowers was back in the spotlight in 1999, this time pushing an eponymous web site - and a long list of alleged murders. On August 2, she was granted an unusually long, half-hour guest segment on Hardball; instantly, she described Bill and Hillary Clinton as "murderers." Her host, Chris Matthews, expressed (or feigned) surprise - and from that point on, viewers were treated to a clownish spectacle, one which captured the public morals of an increasingly puzzling era. "Who did he try to kill that you know of? Give me one hard case," Matthews asked.
The floodgates were open after Gennifer Flowers' Star story made the respectable news. From then on, it was okay in the mainstream press to repeat a rumor by making the "news" the fact that there was a rumor. And thereby widely publicizing it and legitimating it. "I saw it in the New York Times, so there must be something to it."

Now, nasty rumors have become a major factor in campaigning, a pastime particularly favored by the Republicans. But even when blogging, if I'm talking about a rumor that so far as I know is unfounded, I normally just say that it's completely unfounded. I did that the other day with the same rumor that Pickler oh-so-professional put in her lede (or at least her editors did).

Reporters occasionally do manage to point out when something is demonstrably not true or not supported by evidence. They can say, for instance, "no evidence whatsoever has been brought forth to sustain this allegation." Or, "The XYZ news service attempted to verify the rumor in a number of ways and found no evidence for it". How hard is that? Too hard for Nedra Pickler, it seems. But it's worth remembering that if a rumor itself becomes a "legitimate" news story because it's affected a campaign, it should be part of the news report if it's the case that the rumor is something that some OxyContin-addled fool just made up and started telling.

The old, pre-Gennifer Flowers journalistic standard is still a good one. If the rumor is completely unverifiable, the presumption should be that it's not worth spreading via a news story. If there is a good reason to report that the rumor itself is making news, the truth of the underlying story - or the lack thereof - that the rumor is claiming should be part of the news reporting.

Let's give Pickler a bit of credit. She does manage to say clearly that three of the most demonstrably false claims are "false". So she does know how to use the word. But here's how she handles the one in the first paragraph:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign said Thursday that Michelle Obama never used the word "whitey" in a speech from the church pulpit, as it set up a Web site to debunk rumors about him and his wife.

The rumor that Michelle Obama railed against "whitey" in a diatribe at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ has circulated on conservative Republican blogs for weeks and was repeated by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. The rumor included claims of a videotape of the speech that would be used to bring down Obama's candidacy this fall. ...

Obama bristled when he was asked about the "whitey" rumor on his campaign plane last week, saying it was nonsense that should not be repeated in questioning by a mainstream reporter.

"It is a destructive aspect of our politics right now," Obama told the traveling press corps. "And simply because something appears in an e-mail, that should lend it no more credence than if you heard it on the corner. And you know, presumably the job of the press is to not go around and spread scurrilous rumors like this until there's actually anything, one iota of substance or evidence that would substantiate it."

At the same time, his campaign was preparing the debunking Web site in recognition that refusing to address rumors only perpetuates them.
Got that? Pickler wants us to know that Obama is a big ole hypocrite because he committed sacrilege against her professional clan by pointing out that the media is often irresponsible in these things, while his campaign was putting up a truth-squad site to deal with the rumors which reporters like Maureen Dowd and Nedra Pickler gleefully help to publicize.

But what Pickler never gets around to telling her reader about this rumor is that it's "scurrilous" without "one iota of substance or evidence that would substantiate it" (to use Obama's words) that has so far been made available to anyone not buried in OxyContin fantasies.

This is sad. The only journalism class I've had in my life was in high school. But some things are pretty obvious to me. Pickler's a major reporter with the Associated Press news service. She can make telephone calls on the company's dime. Did she called Trinity Church and ask if there is a record of Michelle Obama having appeared in the pulpit at the church? Do they keep such records or transcripts or tapes? Did she call Rush Limbaugh or anything of the other lying Republican blowhards who are spreading this and ask to see their non-existent video? Did she call any of the anonymous friends of Larry Johnson's anonymous friends who claim to have seen the tape? Is there anybody with a name who is willing to say in public that they've seen it? I don't know if I could have immediately thought up how to go about it as a senior in high school. But people, this isn't brain surgery. If she was going to write this report, she should have included something about her efforts to check the underlying story.

With a press corps like this, five members of the Supreme Court could hand a Presidential election won by Al Gore to Dick Cheney and George Bush instead. The government could launch a disastrous war with Iraq based on completely bogus allegations of WMDs and Al Qa'ida ties. The federal government could initiate a torture policy that will be a disgrace to every American alive today for as long as we live. An authoritarian Republican Party could convert the Justice Department into an instrument for partisan prosecution and obstruction of justice. Senior government officials could out an undercover CIA officer for purely partisan retribution and get away with it.

We cannot keep a healthy democracy and a reliable rule of law with a press this dysfunctional.

The more I think about the election theft of 2000, the more I think it's wrong to think of what we have today as a healthy democracy. It still is a democracy. But an increasingly truncated one.

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