Old Media Laziness Spawns New Media Watchdogs

During the tense weekend of Russian activity in the Ukraine one sidelight was cataloging the numerous politicians and journalists who mocked Mitt Romney and/or Sarah Palin over accurate predictions about that region. One who became collateral damage was Politico editor Blake Hounshell.

In 2008  Hounshell, then writing for the foreignolicy.com blog, tore into Palin. He called her prediction a “far-fetched scenario” and used this to attack her character. Hounshell was called out on Twitter for his mockery, and he did not care for it. After bitterly acknowledging her accuracy he then sheepishly went the next step, opting for victim-hood.

That time Sarah Palin called me a dummy http://t.co/Tasq60TkEH

— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) February 28, 2014

Hounshell is employing a contemporary media standard appearing more frequently these days – citing the unspoken quotation. Not so much misquoting, or even paraphrasing, these are directly attributed non-utterances. Without presenting an exact quotation this contemporary practice places words in a target’s mouth and then molds a story around what was not actually said, all for the sake of an agenda.

Here is what Hounshell did above. He claims Palin referred to him as a “dummy”, and he even provided a link to a story from The Wire. That piece featured Palin’s recent Facebook entry on the Ukraine. While she noted Hounshell’s article, including some of his comments on her, two key components are missing. She never uses the term “dummy” (or any name-calling), and notably she never references Hounshell. Yet his claim is made and his version is left to stand.

This is a practice I first noted in the wake of the 2010 hurricane that devastated Haiti. In an incendiary column at Mediaite the now deposed firebrand writer Tommy Christopher took Rush Limbaugh to task for imploring his listeners to refrain donating money to the relief efforts. This seemed a little too tidy of a story, so I dug further. In Christopher’s piece he said boldly

Limbaugh is using the heartrending tragedy of the Haitian earthquake to score points against President Obama, and even urges people not to donate to the relief effort. This is shockingly low, even for Limbaugh.
(emphasis placed by Christopher)

What is stark is the way Christopher was permitted to lie so boldly. I challenged him directly on his charge, asking for him to provide specific quotes where Limbaugh made these entreaties. Christopher dodged the question, insisting the content was in his piece. I listened to the full Limbaugh segment and read the full transcript; at no time did he say anything as claimed. The radio host only questions, why have people avoided direct donations to the Red Cross and funneled money through the White House?

Not only was there no accountability on Christopher’s part, he was granted both a news article and an opinion column dedicated to Limbaugh’s non-commentary. The reason this type of deceptive attribution often is allowed is that the onus of getting to the truth is placed upon the news consumers. In both cases above the claim is made, and supposedly corroborating sources are given. The hope is the presence of attribution is enough to become believed. Facts are something we have to ferret out for ourselves.

Last summer there was a brief dust-up when ThinkProgress made a bold declaration in regards to an upcoming bill vote on the Hill. In what the site felt was a wonderful bit of “gotcha” journalism they cornered Marco Rubio at an event and asked him specifically about the work place anti-discrimination bill. Their headline proclaims Rubio Says It Should Be Legal To Fire Someone For Being Gay.

One minor quibble: He said no such thing.

Again, “proof” is provided with the attribution. A video of the interview, and a partial transcript, with the supposedly inflammatory dialogue, is given. “I haven’t read the legislation,” Says to the camera crew. “By and large I think all Americans should be protected but I’m not for any special protections based on orientation.

You can see plainly where TP in interpreting, and outwardly manipulating the quote. What Rubio is saying is that gays should be included along with “all Americans”, without segregated protections. Where exactly did he “say” he supports firing based on orientation?

Nowhere, of course.

This practice is growing beyond target-seeking media players. The last presidential election had no shortage of created quotes. Pennsylvania’s Morning Call was found to have taken a four sentence quote from Pat Toomey in support of Mitt Romney to a somewhat misleading and altogether manufactured, “Don’t worry guys, he’s OK with me. I vetted him.” With this kind of creative diligence in media there is no surprise politicians feel unencumbered by accuracy, especially with a supportive press corps.

Harry Reid frequently travels light by unpacking facts before flying off with a press announcement. During the Presidential election he issued a release where he declared Mitt Romney saying he “would not honor deportation exemptions”, in opposition to Obama policies. He based this on a Boston Globe article, a piece that had Romney’s staff saying exactly the opposite of Reid’s claims. Once this detail was brought to the Senate Majority leader’s staff they “corrected” the claim on Reid’s website; the quotation marks were removed – the phrase, and claim, were firmly left in place.

We reach a point where press activism requires us to plunge even deeper in our media cynicism, risking “the bends”. Even mundane coverage resorts to these tactics. The Business Insider once offered an article about the discovery of a hybrid shark breed. Little surprise, blame for this evolutionary development was placed on the back of global warming.

There was even expert testimony:

According to lead researcher Jess Morgan, the hybridization might be a sign that the animals are adapting to rising temperature levels as a result of climate change.

Once again the bulk of the journalistic legwork was left to anyone besides a journalist.

It took the curiosity of an independent science blogger who reached out to the cited researcher. Morgan’s response was 180 degrees in opposition to the claim global warming was involved. This did not stop the writer however, and global warming was blamed in the headline as well. Once confronted with the pesky facts Business Insider made adjustments to the article and headline, without announcing the corrections.

That reality is probably the reason this practice goes unchecked so often. Even when caught fabricating sources quietly make changes with little to zero repercussions. Meanwhile they did their damage, via Churchill’s lie circling the globe.

It is too often left to the readers to grab the pants in order to properly outfit the truth.