Rushing to Misjudgment

Lemmings

As you may have heard, police raided the Los Angeles home of Gene Simmons, bassist for the musical group Kiss to conduct a search for evidence of child pornography. This may have caused a great deal of shock and alarm among Kiss fans. (Are there really Kiss fans?) How could such a perennial pop icon have been involved in such despicable activity? Well, he wasn’t. When you read past the headlines, you see that neither Simmons nor his wife is a “person of interest” in the investigation — which apparently involves another individual who stayed in their home last year when they were away.

But how many people have the wrong impression because they only pay attention to headlines? Quite a few, probably. Headlines can be, and often are, misleading. Yet headlines are what grab people’s attention, and what people tend to remember longest. And even when people read past the headlines, it is the initial report that captures and holds their attention.

Which is a problem itself because news coverage, and particularly in initial reports, tends to be overwhelmingly sensationalist, superficial and slanted. Journalists and editors are under constant pressure to get a story out there fast and get it to the public in such a way that it will appeal to the public’s heavily divided and taxed focus and attention span. But they are seldom under pressure to provide accuracy, depth and balance.

Consider what happened when the news broke about videos that allegedly showed that Planned Parenthood sells “body parts” from aborted fetuses. Many people took the story at face value and ran with it, Facebooking it ad infinitum. It turns out that the videos had been heavily doctored (not only were conversations edited, but imagery of a stillborn baby was passed off as a fetus), and PP absolutely has been cleared of the charge of selling body parts. The problem, as usual, was not anything the organization actually does, but the sleaziness and dishonesty of “pro-life” fanatics. But by the time the truth came out, the damage had been done: the reputation of Planned Parenthood had been irreparably tarnished. Which was the whole idea.

Unless you live on Uranus, or just live with your head in your anus, you’ve probably heard more than you ever wanted to about the Ashley Madison scandal.  The website’s 37 million members included many politicians, some of the holier-than-thou variety. It also included “family values” media darling Josh Duggar, who’d already been exposed as a child molester and porn addict.

But it wasn’t until a few days later that we learned something else: Ashley Madison did not verify the email addresses of its members. Which means that theoretically, any email address that you or I have used in the past few years could have been “borrowed” and used by someone else to join the site.

And later still, facts surfaced that were even more interesting. It turns out that about 90 percent of the site’s members are known to be male. Of the remaining 10 percent, most are apparently fake profiles submitted by men or by persons connected with Ashley Madison itself.  There are, in other words, very few real female members at all; and of those few, almost none have responded to messages on the board. Which is to say, Ashley Madison is a colossal ripoff; and despite the huge membership, it’s highly unlikely that any given member actually cheated with another member. Yet divorces reportedly have been filed because of names being listed in the leaked database.

People have a habit of rushing to judgment. Why? We’ve already examined the compulsory tendency of the American public to form an opinion and voice a strong reaction to anything and everything that comes down the pike. But even if you feel obligated to form an opinion, does that mean that you have to do so immediately?  It will still be just as possible to react later after more facts come in as it is when the story first breaks. And it’s wise to wait until the other shoe(s) fall, if you don’t want to make a fool of yourself.

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you may have noticed that it’s often considerably behind the curve when it comes to discussing recent events — you’d probably never be able to accuse it of getting a scoop . There’s a method to this slackness. I want to make certain I have the full and accurate picture before analyzing anything. And with current events, that usually involves a cooling-off period of at least a few days; I find it’s often better to wait at least a month. That doesn’t guarantee total accuracy, of course — it may turn out that Gene Simmons is really as much a perv as Jared Fogle (who according to initial reports was not a suspect) and Planned Parenthood is a grisly organ mill after all. But the evidence at this point says otherwise, whatever the malicious rumors may say.

Of course, my readership would be much larger if, like many other news-related blogs and like Internet gossips, I eagerly joined in the game of telephone. But unlike them, and unlike most news outlets, I’m perfectly willing to sacrifice popularity for comprehensiveness and accuracy.

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3 thoughts on “Rushing to Misjudgment

  1. Lately I have been researching the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails because not only is FOX news accusing, trying, and convicting her based on the opinions of the rumor mill, but well known and usually well informed columnists, seem to be jumping on the bandwagon without waiting for the entire story.

    What I do know, is that many conservatives websites have eagerly circulated claims that Clinton is being investigated by the FBI and even that a large number of the emails on her private account contain, numerous examples of recklessly ignoring classified information. However, recently we have heard it said that, the FBI is not investigating her, but rather, investigating in general, whether classified information was being circulated among the many different members of the State department, who may have carelessly included it in their private emails. Clinton claims that none of the questionable emails found on her account were Identified as classified when she received them, and I have not seen any proof that says differently, yet mainstream journalist like Eugene Robinson, have already concluded that she is personally responsible for doing such stupid things while sending and receiving delicate, and classified information.

    The news coverage given her story has been pursued by. (as you point out) by far too many journals desiring an exclusive scoop, yet fails to properly vet all of the press’s information. But journals like Media Matters have actually decided to investigate before reaching accurate conclusions, and, actually looking before they leap.

    I have recently heard reports that sending and receiving classified information on private accounts, is, although officially condemned, commonly done by many members of government agencies. And it only makes sense that our intelligence community should be responsible for distinctly labeling all of their sensitive emails as being classified. That way whoever is SOS, can easily identify those which are meant to be kept secret–after all, how can one person,—even the Secretary of State, personally judge and rate all of the myriad of emails which are sent to them each day—this would clearly be way too time consuming, and truly be a virtually impossible task.

    Some journalists invoke the claim that, since the national archives are meant to contain all of the personal communications of our major politicians, Hillary should not have complained about handing over all of the emails in her private account, but since when have such records been released during a current President’s term, or during a hotly contested political campaign undertaken to elect a candidate like Hillary Clinton to the highest post in the country? If we think the NSA scandal was tasty, wait until the GOP gets ahold of her cheesecake recipes!

    Revealing personal information about a former secretary of State at a time like this, would represent complete negligence and irresponsibility on the part of the Press and on the parts of members of Congress. So while Hillary may have been negligent in some of her responsibilities, we all know the real reason that the GOP is attacking her email controversy like a group of Piranhas devouring the carcass of a cow, lies in their hopes that voters will remember not just proven facts, but also the many faux scandals which they have recently raised. Unfortunately the truth is not always heard and lies are much too often left unchallenged—even as you point out, when quickly examined by members of the mainstream press.

    I may ultimately express points that are later disproven, but accurate reporting truely should involve every member of the press—since a free society depends on accurate and truthful journalism, every bit as much as it depends on any individual’s freedom of expression.

  2. Pingback: Science Deniers, Flat Earthers and the Modern Galileo | The Propaganda Professor

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