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.