You’ve probably memorized that State Farm TV commercial where the woman tells her friend that she believes everything on the internet because it has to be true, and introduces her “French model” date—a grotesque geek wearing a belly pack who can barely manage “Uh..Bonjour!”—whom she met on the internet. Well, last week we were treated to a lesson in how the mainstream media, even its most prestigious and trusted members, are about as trustworthy as her date.
None other than the exalted Washington Post breathlessly reported last week, in a front page story, that “the federal government wants to create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month…If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas.”
The story was stunning and worrisome–Why is the government competing with private enterprise? How can it undertake such a sweeping discretionary initiative with the Treasury deep in debt? Wait, what??—and rapidly spread all over the 24-hour news media, including cable, radio and the internet (Uh..Bonjour!). It is there still, largely uncorrected. The story, meanwhile, was essentially untrue, a mistake. Yet as of yesterday, it was still being reported and argued about as fact on such respectable and trusted websites as Salon, Reason, UPI, Business Investor, The Daily Caller, NPR and many more. The Post, meanwhile, has still not published a clear and prominent retraction, and the reporter who wrote the erroneous story is still spreading misinformation.
How could this happen? Jon Brodkin explains at Ars Technica:
“A journalist gets a story completely wrong and doesn’t want to believe it. Instead of correcting the original story, a “follow-up” gets written to give the appearance that no correction is needed—the issue just needs to be explained in further detail. The real purpose is to avoid correcting the record while implying that the original story wasn’t wrong.”
Ah, yes. How human, how understandable! Also completely irresponsible, unethical and unprofessional. Where are the editors? Where is accountability? Journalists who behave in this manner shouldn’t be able to get front page stories published in the Washington Post. Journalists like this shouldn’t be journalists.
Read Brodkin’s thorough and fair account (here) of how this story acme to pollute the public’s understanding, and weep. This is not a flukey occurrence that can be brushed off as meaningless and forgivable. This is the mark of an untrustworthy profession, without proper controls, adequate judgement, and professional standards.