Commentary

Misleading The Media: Truth and Consequences

These days, there's a reason why a hoax -- the balloon boy in Colorado, the faux Chamber of Commerce climate change news conference in Washington, D.C. -- is more likely than ever before to air.

It's not because, given cutbacks in newsrooms countrywide, there is less focus on checking the facts before going public with a story. Even in my 23 years with ABC News, fact-checking was only as good as the commitment of whoever was in charge. Not everyone was committed.

No, the answer has more to do with the rush to air or the rush to press, which puts competition before content. It doesn't really matter who or what you blame: 24-hour news cycles or the unfiltered Internet. Too many newsrooms these days, including some with nationwide reach, don't want to be the last to jump on a hot story, or the first to leave it behind.

This is no great revelation, but it is a sad commentary on the decline of news organizations large and small.

If someone is determined to pull a fast one on the media, there's a 50/50 chance they will succeed. It may not be important when it's a relatively inconsequential prank, although one wonders how the climate change hoax would have turned out if the real Chamber people hadn't shown up.

But prank is far too mild for something like the run-up to the war in Iraq, when the Bush administration cherry-picked its facts, misleading both the news media and the American public. Most in the media were negligent for failing to check those "facts" and report that other facts contradicted them. In retrospect, we learned the whole story.

In the book I just wrote about the adventures and misadventures of journalists, Life in the Wrong Lane, I talk about the propensity of public officials in other lands, other cultures, to mislead the media. Sometimes innocently, sometimes maliciously, sometimes just habitually.

But in such places -- the Soviet Union, Third World Africa, the Mideast -- we knew that when we walked in the door. Naively, we expect more at home. Given the driving force behind so many newsmakers these days, namely, to influence public opinion, we should know better. No one can make us more reliable except our own collective conscience.

But that raises another problem which affects every American: News organizations don't cover the world any more. I'm not exactly bursting with pride to say that in my heyday at ABC, we had 14 news bureaus around the world. I'm not bursting because not a single one was in Latin America, and the only reason we had a bureau in Africa was to cover Cairo, which happens to be in the most northeast corner of the continent.

Still, we could count our bureaus, and we had people in many important parts of the world who actually knew a thing or two about the regions they covered. Today? Aside from war zones, you could count the number of bureaus for any of the legacy television networks on one hand, with a finger or two left over.

Tom Farmer, a former executive producer of CNN's "Larry King Live," said my book would make the reader "happy but wistful." He wrote: "Sending guys like Dobbs to faraway places used to guarantee the provenance of the reporting. It's cheaper not to, and the American public doesn't seem to mind, but that doesn't make it right."

1 comment about "Misleading The Media: Truth and Consequences".
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  1. Harold Cabezas from Cabezas Communications, October 27, 2009 at 9:04 a.m.

    Well-written, Greg, thank you!! Very salient points all throughout this post.

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