By Ellen Goodman
If you ever wondered why God invented the delete button, let me pass along the e-mail that arrived on the wings of various listservs directed at the mainstream media.
“How much do we love you?” the author asked the MSM. “Let me count the ways: You lie, omit, distort and skew what otherwise should be unbiased accounts of ALL news, not just what furthers the interests of the ‘fringe left.’ ”
As my finger hovered over “block sender,” I scanned the list of wrongs. No. 1 was the charge that we, the MSM, had hidden the fact that Bill Ayers was the real author of “Dreams From My Father.”
This myth had been careening around the Internet for some time, but came back to life after a conservative blogger confronted Ayers at an airport. In a fit of snark, Ayers “confessed.” “Michelle asked me to. ... I wrote it,” he said, adding, “And if you can prove it we can split the royalties.” GOTCHA!
Let it not be said that right-wing bloggers are encumbered by a sense of humor. Or a fact-checker. Ayers’ authorship was about as true as the drive-a-stake-in-that-rumor that Obama had been born in Kenya. That fantasy was ranked in The New Yorker magazine as somewhere between “a belief in Santa Claus and ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ ”
The birth myth was, in turn, matched by Glenn Beck’s assertion that under Obamacare you could either buy coverage or go to jail. And neck and neck with the fanciful claim by Sarah Palin that health care reform would mean “death panels” for the elderly.
Well, I hold the lack of these truths to be self-evident. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t believed.
My amazement at this grows from a strange, lingering attachment to facts. This is probably a result of my having begun as a fact-checker for Newsweek. Facts—along with their enforcers, editors—have long been the guides and saviors of my career, now more than 46 years long.
Now I’m planning the next phase of my life. This may be why I’m struck by how much hard facts have softened in this time, how much less they seem to matter.
“Truthiness” has exploded alongside a new media that is decidedly not mainstream, that flows into as many rivulets as there are cable channels, points on the radio dial, and unvetted bloggers.
It’s now possible to find a group somewhere in Googleland that will agree with anything. Any outlier can find a tribe and a “fact”—Global warming is a hoax! Evolution is a fraud!—that reinforces his own belief.
There is a sense that we don’t need science or editing or fact-checking as long as we have crowd-sourcing. We don’t have to build opinions on facts; we can build facts on opinions.
This is not just common on blogs but on right-wing talk shows where hosts have gone rogue. What price exactly has Glenn Beck paid for playing loose with facts? Did only Jon Stewart catch Sean Hannity using video from one (large) teabag rally to illustrate another (small) rally?
This fact-free standard is held up (or down) by politicians who follow their lead. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, for example, isn’t about to challenge those “death panel” believers who rally to his FreedomWorks flag: “If people want to believe that ... it’s O.K. with me.” Whatever.
I’m not suggesting that newspapers—once defined as the first rough draft of history—are without errors. But there are prices to pay and corrections to be made and standards to be met. When was the last time an Internet birther ran a correction or lost his job?
Those of us who have spent our lives in journalism wake up to daily reports of troubles: newsrooms cut, papers bankrupt. My first employer, Newsweek, no longer covers news. My second, the Detroit Free Press, has cut back home delivery. I have watched my third employer, The Boston Globe, grow and shrink.
Hardest of all is to witness the evaporation of a profession that’s been the vetting agent for the “reality-based community.” A craft that has struggled to be right as often and rigorously as possible.
In a “60 Minutes”/Vanity Fair poll last month, readers were asked what professions are likely to disappear. Of the likely candidates, 28 percent chose tobacco farmers, but 26 percent picked newspaper reporters. Only 3 percent thought fact-checkers would become extinct.
Well, I have “news” for you. When the reporters go, so do the facts. And their checkers.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman1(at)me.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group