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William Raspberry

A Web of Bunk

How the Press Gets Pushed Into Phony Stories

By William Raspberry
Monday, October 25, 2004; Page A19

The information explosion occasioned by the World Wide Web -- putting at the fingertips of schoolchildren information that would have been inaccessible to PhD researchers a generation ago -- has the potential to make us all smarter, to free us from the tyranny of those who would limit our access to truth, to empower us.

But it has made serious journalism -- political journalism in particular -- a hundred times more difficult.

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Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, lays out the major difficulty in the current issue of AJR:

"How do you handle controversial, explosive charges made in the heat of a political campaign by people with painfully obvious axes to grind?"

It was the charges made in an ad by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that prompted Rieder's examination, but it could have been -- and assuredly will be -- any number of spurious, or at any rate unproven, allegations.

To understand why this is more difficult for mainstream journalism than it used to be, think back a dozen years to Gennifer Flowers. The rumors that the nightclub singer had been involved in a long-running affair with then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton had been flying for months. Reporters, having tried and failed to nail them down, didn't publish them.

But the tabloid Star did -- in a story for which it paid Flowers.

That story -- and the buzz it produced -- provided the basis for an ABC "Nightline" show which the hugely respected Ted Koppel essentially devoted to Rieder's question: What are the mainstream media to do when the tabloids publish blockbuster stories driven by people with axes to grind?

Koppel posed it as a serious, even philosophical, question. But of course he had to lay out the specifics of the Star story so his assembled panel of serious journalists could respond to them. The result was that mainstream "Nightline" reported precisely the same story as the tabloid Star -- the only difference being, as I remarked at the time, that Koppel did it with a long face.

Afterward, of course, every news outlet ran with the story.

In 1996, to take another example, the San Jose Mercury News ran a major story alleging that the CIA played a leading role in introducing crack cocaine into America's ghettos. In no time at all, the Internet was abuzz with the story -- not a word of which had surfaced in The Washington Post.

I remember asking a senior editor at The Post if he didn't think the story merited coverage, if only because "everybody" was talking about it. The response was to the effect that he wasn't prepared to let less careful editors than he deploy his resources. It was a reasonable position which, in the event, proved unsustainable. The Post wound up not only covering the story but launching its own independent investigation -- not because it had discovered new information but because the story had taken on a life of its own.

Much the same thing happened a few weeks ago when The Post, driven by persistent postings on the Web, sought to debunk a story to the effect that no airliner crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11 -- that the damage was done by an American-launched missile.

If more or less ordinary citizens -- "netizens" -- could drive the CIA-crack story or the Sept. 11 fantasy into the mainstream press, imagine what a well-financed, politically motivated, smartly directed campaign could do. That, essentially, is what happened with the Swift Boat Veterans group.

Indeed, for me the most important complaint about mainstream coverage of the Swift boat affair was not that the mainstream press ignored it, but that mainstream journalists waited too long to get beyond the they-said-he-said "objective" reporting and try to figure out who was closer to the truth.

What has changed in the years since Gennifer Flowers, says Rieder, is that a handful of national newspapers no longer can operate as journalistic gatekeepers -- effectively blocking stories that are unverified or unverifiable and driven by people whose political motivations are plain to see.

The explosion of the Internet leaves us, in effect, with no gatekeeper. Sometimes important information gains currency that way. The problem is that anyone with Web access can run any cockamamie story up the flagpole -- and if enough people salute, prompt the mainstream press to deploy its resources.

It's that bad -- and it isn't likely to get better any time soon.

willrasp@washpost.com


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