Thoughts on media rumor-mongering

New-media thinker Steve Outing disagrees with my post on Andrew Sullivan, arguing that the days are long gone when the news media could pretend that rumors millions of people are talking about don’t exist. It’s smart and thoughtful, and I suggest you read the whole thing. Outing writes:

Sorry, Dan, I totally disagree. Long gone are the days when “the press” had the power to keep stuff like this under wraps, taking a Father Knows Best approach and not sharing the “sordid” details with the public. This thing is already spreading like wildfire, without being mentioned by mainstream news organizations. It’s going to play out with or without the mainstream press taking part.

This is a strong rumor that’s already got legs. News organizations need to investigate, and if they can confirm that it’s false, they should report it. It doesn’t have to be a big deal or take up a 24-hour news cycle. A simple short story — Palin baby rumor has been debunked — would suffice.

I think he’s wrong, and I’ll explain why in a moment. First, though, as Media Nation reader Kang notes, this so-called story is already falling apart. A Daily Kos diarist — not the one who got all this started — has posted a photo he found at the Free Republic, a conservative Web site, showing Gov. Palin very pregnant with Trig.

With that out of the way, I want to explain why I think it’s not a big deal that nutty stuff like the Palin pregnancy rumor gets hashed out by pseudonymous bloggers at sites like Daily Kos, but that it’s a very big deal when a well-known blogger with journalistic credentials like Sullivan writes about this for a prestigious media outlet like the Atlantic. (Even now, Sullivan, while reluctantly conceding the photographic evidence, smugly tell us that criticism of his ethics is mere “hyper-ventilation.”)

Outing says that “millions of people” were finding out about the rumor anyway. Yes. But the key is that they were finding out about it at a site of haphazard reliability. I am not criticizing Daily Kos (although the diarist who got this rolling clearly has the ethics of a snake). At its best, it’s a place where rumors like these can be hashed out very quickly, and that seems to be what happened here. This is what is meant by the self-correcting nature of the Web.

Who was hurt by Daily Kos? No one, really, because there’s all sorts of misinformation percolating in the tubes (I thought an Alaska reference would be appropriate). What you hope is that the solid stuff will rise to the top, and that it will be proven or debunked. And if it’s debunked, it ought to be done somewhere other than in the mainstream media.

As for what “millions of people” who know about the rumor would think if the media stayed silent, well, I don’t hear any complaints over the lack of an investigative series on 9/11 conspiracy theories. Most people are smart enough to understand that the media would not shy away from a story like Palin’s fake pregnancy if it were true and could be verified.

Note, too, that Sullivan didn’t investigate the rumor. Instead, he slapped it onto the Web site of one of our most prestigious magazines and said, hey, MSM, check this out, OK? “I have claimed nothing,” he self-righteously wrote when people began to call him on it.

Outing cites the traditional media’s failure in the John Edwards story. I’ve written about that myself. On reflection, though, I’m not sure the media could have verified the National Enquirer’s initial report without devoting far more resources to it than it deserved. Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer has written with insight about the media’s role in the Edwards affair, and I recommend it.

Crass political aside: Can you imagine what the effect would have been if the New York Times or the Washington Post had taken on the Palin rumor and it turned out not to be true? Palin would be off-limits for the rest of the campaign.

Finally, I would observe that if the media were to adopt the ethos that nasty rumors like this should be hashed out in public, then they have handed a lethal weapon to rumor-mongers. It’s not difficult to concoct semi-believable garbage. When I saw the first Kos post on the pregnancy rumor, it struck me as credible enough that journalists ought to make a few discreet inquiries.

But if the media were to take up such things routinely and publicly, then there would be much more of it, and we’d never talk about anything else. That’s not what I want, and I don’t think it’s what Outing wants, either. Sullivan? In his case, I’m not so sure.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts on media rumor-mongering

  1. Tish Grier

    Dan,you’re right about the differences in the type of media–Daily Kos vs. Andrew Sullivan. People who read Kos regularly, and most familiar with Kos, know not just to read the posts, but also to read the comments. Kos is a community, where lots of rumors get hashed out in the comments. Truth can happen in the Kos comments sections. Or at least a real calling-out of the rumor monger. Regular Kos readers know this. And then there are follow-up posts.Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, is considered, more or less, a serious journalist, even in his blogging, because his reputation precedes him. He’s not really a blogger in the same sense as those at Kos, and he doesn’t have the same kind of community. So, when Sullivan repeats a rumor, and the fact that the “blog” he’s repeating it on is the property of a prestigious magazine, which has a different readership than Kos, it’s a totally different issue. And, really–if journalism starts to get into this kind of rumor-mongering on a regular basis, then we’re in trouble. We have enough of that now, and journalism has been discredited enough because of it. We don’t need any more of it.

  2. Steve

    Hmmm. So now we have the new development of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy confirmed by the McCain campaign itself. Without the DailyKos thing, this would have come out later.While initial DailyKos rumors were wrong (it seems), there was a real story here. (No, it’s not one that can be kept under wraps for the sake of Bristol’s privacy. It’s a legitimate issue for public discussion when the candidate-mom is an advocate of abstinence-only education and no abortion even in the case of rape.)I’d say that affirms my view that mainstream media needs to pay attention to and investigate stuff like this. And if it’s false, debunk it without making it the highlight of the news cycle (my short-article suggestion).I do agree with you Dan; if it’s false, I would not want it to become a big deal in MSM coverage. That serves no one, especially the media themselves. But nor do I think this kind of thing should be or CAN be ignored.-Steve Outing

  3. Brendan

    This seems like it be a good place for some mainstream journalists to get a break. I just watched the Daily Show’s convention coverage, “The Best F*@king News Team” was hilarious. With all these silly news teams on TV, a rumor busting squad would fit right in.I think your right that the Internet is doing its job here of hashing things out in the shadows. But this won’t last. I am amazed at how bad ALL cable news is. Sooner or later, they will be exactly mirroring whatever the new thing is on the Internet. TV and the Web are collapsing and it doesn’t look good for journalistic integrity. But I don’t think it will be any worse than the advent of 24 hour news.

  4. mike_b1

    rick, the “they” of course would be young mother-to-be Palin and her seeder. And the Religious Right (aka the GOP) won’t like this one bit. Obviously all that Faith Based Initiative funding didn’t make it up to Alaska.

  5. Rick

    Rick said… A 17 yr old getting pregnant means they have no family values?And who is “they” in saying no? Do you mean Bristol,the girl that will keep the baby and marry the father of her child?I suppose she would have your support if she chose an abortion.

  6. Rick

    Sorry I don’t connect a 17yr old getting pregnant to politics. Some people see politics in everything I guess.I see something that happens day in and day out to all types of people.

  7. mike_b1

    rick, it was the GOP who made “family values” the cornerstone of their platform. It was the GOP who spent tens of millions trying to convince the American public likewise. It was the GOP that introduced federal funding for “Faith-Based Initiatives” (damn the Constitution).Now you have a woman who is in line for the 2d highest office in the land (and who was picked by a man in line for the highest office in the land), and her progeny is a clear demonstration of the right’s total hypocrisy on the matter. How can you ask such questions in light of all that?

  8. Rick

    Not that it matters but you brought it up but Sen. Obama has said he would like to increase spending on faith based initiatives by 500 million dollars. I just don’t follow your logic Mike. Girls get pregnant every day no matter what their parents say,or what the political party of their party say. If she gets an abortion her parents are hypocrites because THEY are against abortion if she keeps the baby and marries the father THEY are hypocrites because she should not have gotten pregnant in the first place?She or her parents can’t win in your book because you see everything as political and not as personal.

  9. mike_b1

    Rick, and yet the GOP gleefully smears Obama with voter scare tactics, like calling him Muslim, or denying they know what his religion is.The thing is, all those GOP attacks are both personal and dishonest (recall: Reagan had a furlough problem long before Dukakis did), and therefore find it both ironic and humorous when the shoe is on the other foot. Per the Religious Right (aka the GOP), what Little Miss Teen Sleepover should have done was not had sex. The GOP thinks this is something that should be taught as part of our public education, but refuses to budge on other birth control measures. Clinton got a blow job from a consenting adult, and the GOP somehow decided that was the most criminal act imaginable, and wasted millions of taxpayers dollars in a futile effort to convince us of it, too. If he doesn’t get a pass for private behavior between consenting adults, why should a possible statutory sexual abuse case get one?

  10. mike_b1

    Hardly. I’m gleeful with optimism over Obama’s sure November victory, albeit slightly saddened by the fact the GOP has to fumble in its own end zone to get the American public to wake up to that party’s strategic stupidity. But whatever it takes…

  11. mike_b1

    Yes. It’s better than spending $80 billion or so a month fighting for … what is it we are fighting for in Iraq again?

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