What? Journalists Lie?


As you’ve no doubt heard, NBC news anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for stretching the truth about his coverage of Iraq. Which just goes to prove that them librul journalists are all nothing but a pack of liars. (NBC is librul, of course; every network is assumed librul unless it proves otherwise by bashing Obama to a sufficient degree, and then it can be safely classified as fair and balanced.) And in the frenzy over that revelation, it has surfaced that Fox’s Bill O’Reilly is also guilty of padding his resume several times. Which just goes to show that them libruls have no compunctions about maliciously spreading the truth if it helps their cause.

And although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention, it happens that at least one more Foxer has been tipping the liar meter quite a bit for self-promotion: one Emily Miller has built a career out of an anecdote about a terrifying home invasion she supposedly experienced, but actually didn’t. Which just goes to show that them librulz… well, something or other. In any case, it’s all left a lot of people wondering to what extent journalists can be trusted, anyway.

If I absolutely had to answer that difficult question, I’d probably say something to the effect that I believe most journalists are trustworthy most of the time — and I say this having had a bit of experience as a journalist myself. Nonetheless, I know that inaccurate information does get reported; it’s just not easy to know exactly how often, even in this Age Of Google.

I’ve also been on the receiving end, having been written about in a fair number of media stories. And while the information reported in those stories was about 98 percent accurate, virtually every story contained at least one error — even when the writer had actually interviewed me. Usually, they were minor details that almost nobody but me would know about. And they were honest mistakes, generally the result of connecting dots that had no business being connected. Still, it makes you wonder how frequently the same sort of thing happens to reporters facing a blazing hot deadline to cover breaking news events.

But the fuss isn’t really about mistakes committed because journalists are human. It’s about deliberate misrepresentations such as those committed by Williams and O’Reilly. And with some frequency or other, they do indeed occur.

In 1981, Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a story she wrote for the Washington Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. But she was stripped of her prize when the story turned out be just that. Jimmy was a figment of her imagination. Perhaps she felt justified with the fabrication because Jimmy represented certain genuine cases. But further investigation revealed that she’d also fabricated part of her own credentials and experience.

Many years ago when I was living in San Francisco, a respected dance critic was fired after writing a review of a performance he apparently didn’t attend. Had he done this kind of thing before? Quite possibly. This time he was caught only because he criticized a couple of dancers who, as it turns out, had been replaced at the last minute. Oops.

Ironically, this critic wrote for the S.F. Chronicle, which shortly thereafter was acquired by the Hearst Corporation. That’s Hearst as in William Randolph, who set an astoundingly high bar for journalistic disintegrity.  Although his reputed quote to the effect that “you furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” is possibly apocryphal, it does give a good indication of his actual attitude, influence and modus operandi. Whether he uttered the statement or not, his propaganda did, to an extent, “furnish” action in the Spanish-American War.

In 1941, cinematic wunderkind Orson Welles produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, which many critics regard as the greatest movie of all time. But since the story appears to have been loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron did not take kindly to it, and barred the film from being so much as mentioned in his media properties. He also had his journalists repeatedly libel Welles, and he lobbied the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to avoid bestowing honors on the film. Not only did the “Greatest Film Of All Time” fail to win the Oscar for best picture, but Welles was even booed whenever his name was mentioned during the ceremony that year.

Hearst also waged a sensationalized crusade against marijuana, as did much of the media in his time — though the popular notion that it was fueled by a desire to eliminate hemp as a cheaper alternative to paper is highly dubious. Still, he was definitely a titan of yellow journalism and a highly vindictive practitioner of smear tactics. He was, in short, the Rupert Murdoch of his day.

Speaking of whom, it’s a sign of the times that there is so much focus being directed on the efforts of talking heads to swell their heads even bigger, and so little focus on the more pervasive falsehoods that potentially have much more impact on us all. By all indications, Fox lies far more often than any other network — which is hardly surprising, since Fox is only marginally a news network, and it’s questionable whether its personalities can even be classified as journalists. Politifact has found in recent cursory evaluations that Fox lied, at least in part, about 60 percent of the time. Another estimate has the network lying more than 80 percent of the time. (And bear in mind that its few truthful utterances include those that depart from its normal ideology.)

Jon Stewart (what a void he is going to leave) responded to Fox’s pot-and-kettle accusations that he had been lying by challenging them to a “lie-off”, and producing a clip of 50 Fox lies in 6 seconds. Of course the 50 lies had been gleaned from a much longer time span than 6 seconds; but as you may recall, I previously found 8 lies in a real-time Fox clip of just under two minutes. And it was a clip chosen essentially at random.

Stewart also bemoans the tortuous pretzels that the official story often gets twisted into in order to accommodate extreme right-wing dogma:

Fifteen states have approved Voter ID laws in the absence of any meaningful evidence of voter fraud. An Oklahoma state committee voted to ban AP history for not sugar coating slavery enough. Abstinence is approved sex education. Scientific fact isn’t reported now. It’s debated.

Actually, it’s even worse than Stewart indicates. We’ve reached the point that virtually any fact is considered negotiable; many people seem to have the attitude that evolution and global warming will just disappear if we have strong enough opinions about them. You’ve probably heard a lot about the “debate” over global warming and the “debate” over vaccines. In reality, there is no debate on either subject. There are only arrogant and gullible individuals who are convinced they know more than the experts. And in order to reinforce that belief, they are quite willing to latch onto whatever falsehoods the hucksters toss their way.

So let’s see now. We get a whole lot of media focus on Brian Williams. Much less on Bill O’Reilly. Less still on Emily Miller. And (aside from media watchdog sites on the left) damn little about Fox’s relentless dishonesty. Could it be that there is more attention paid to “liberal” dishonesty and considerably less to “conservative” dishonesty. Nah, can’t be. We all know that there’s an overwhelming librul bias to the media, right? So what’s the alternative? That the more trivial a lie is, the brighter the spotlight on it?

In light of the persistent and consistent record of Fox mendacity, it might seem a bit trifling to make such an opera out of a couple of TV personalities fibbing to boost their credentials. But they do say that sunshine is the best disinfectant; and maybe, just maybe, airing out the relatively petty transgressions of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly will lead to some level of accountability for Fox. But my advice, for what it’s worth, is not to suspend all respiration until it happens.


  1. “In reality, there is no debate on either subject. There are only arrogant and gullible individuals who are convinced they know more than the experts.”

    I’m afraid it goes deeper than that. Not too long ago I debated an ultra-conservative on Facebook about global warming. He told me he believed it was a fraud and a political scheme. In other words, he would rather believe all those scientists were lying than admit that science support global warming. And he wasn’t alone.

    The bizarre thing is, this was a man who is an atheist, a skeptic, and a Bible scholar, who rejects the idea that Jesus actually lived, who debates Fundamentalists and Creationists, and writes about pseudoscience and irrational beliefs, yet throws all that out the window when his personal political ideology is threatened (he also believes “progressives” are trying to destroy the economy).

    Then again, this isn’t limited to conservatives. I recently ended a debate with another atheist skeptic who believed that religion was dangerous. At one point he tried to support this by claiming that during the Middle Ages the Church suppressed and persecuted knowledge, learning, scholars, and scientists, all in the name of faith. So I gave him the same link on myths about the Middle Ages that I gave Mr. Johnson. His response was that, since the author had not provided citations of original sources, he was making the whole thing up. When I pointed out that his additional reading list constituted his citations, he replied that that was a lie since the author didn’t said that in his article.

    My point is, it seems to me that the real problem is both sides of these disputes refuse to educate themselves, and prefer to believe that the truth is a lie, in order to avoid finding out that their ideology or opinions are wrong.

  2. POP,
    The absurd lengths that Fox News and the GOP will go to in order to feather the nest of special interests by popularizing lies that benefit them, is truly astounding. But, are you sure that Brian Williams’s inaccuracies were (intentional) lies? Wasn’t the story that, there were two helicopters involved in the actual attack and one of them actually did get hit by flack–just not the helicopter Williams was in?

    Its very true that over time most of us have conflated real memories with things that didn’t happen and have been confused about different aspects of a noteworthy occurrence, or story. Several times I have brought up distinct memories with family members, who are surprised that, I really think something happened that way—although I could have sworn?……it did. Some of this has to be blamed on the passage of many years, and a blurring of falsehoods with reality, and that this is a very commonly experienced phenomenon. In Williams case, the story he falsely reported was no doubt, one of a myriad of stories about the middle east that he had covered over a course of years, and the fact that the other helicopter was the only one that sustained damage, may have originally not been known by Williams, who may have falsely remembered the real facts about something that happened shortly after his helicopter landed. Thus after dozens and dozens of stories about the middle east, that Williams reported, along with even a slight deterioration of his memory due to aging, he could very easily have been confused about what he momentarily thought, really happened?

    Personally after watching him for so long on the evening news and observing the graceful, easy, manner and humorous style he embodied on various talk shows, it is hard for me to doubt his character to this extent, and even harder to think that someone with such great accomplishments under his belt, would ever even need to deliberately lie in order to steal military thunder, merely to boost his own image, or, need to create false heroic myths about himself.This all seems sooooo, highly unlikely!

    True, Fox News epitomizes the politically motivated lie and has no equal, but I have never heard about such a similar stain on the history of Brian William’s career?

    Unless you have more knowledge about the issue than me, I am perfectly willing to cut Williams some slack, and welcome him back after a period of unpaid absence, as penance for his slip. yes, he needs to be especially careful to check his sources before reporting any future stories, but the man is only human and one drop of rain, does not a river make. Journalist should commit themselves to certain strict and meticulous standards, but I highly doubt that Williams actually creed a lie, for no good reason except ot hog the personal spotlight in order to advance his career or exaggerate his own virtues. He just does not need to do anything like that, to glorify himself, so why would he? unfortunately, the press is always eager to gobble up any journalistic red meat that partisans may toss in front of them–they want to make money by reporting any type of overly-sensationalized scandal. sure Williams may have been somewhat influence by similar desires to create good stories, but I am willing to believe that Brian did not seek to do that in this case, about a story that could be so easily debunked–why would he? The man is no stupid!

  3. Perhaps it would be an over-generalization to apply this beyond the specific types of beliefs under study (conspiracy stories), but I suspect that it is more widely applicable. The attached research references it in regard to conspiracy stories… efforts to debunk a false or marginal belief have a tendency to re-inforce the original belief.

    Some other things are true as well, for example, one is not typically swayed by someone who has more than 6 degrees of separation from one’s own beliefs.

    Perhaps it is time to start taking the information in this study and similar ones to practice. One might envision a different way of persuasion, i.e. targeting only those within one’s 6 degrees and getting them to chain it.

    What we have today is everyone talking into the wind.


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