Enabling liars

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

I've frequently written that the media should stop giving a platform to people they know have told lies. Here's an example, and another.

It's not an uncommon position. If you know, for example, that Betsy McCaughey has a 15-year record of making false claims about health care, why on earth would you call her for comment about health care? Why would you quote her? Why would you take anything she says seriously? Why would you give her attention, and give her a platform from which to continue to make false claims? Even if you debunk her false claims, you're probably doing a lousy job of it, and you're certainly letting those falsehoods shape the debate. What's the upside? Why is it important that people who have no credibility be part of your coverage?

Now, there are arguments against this shun-the-liars approach. For example, you can argue that some people -- say, Sarah Palin -- are famous enough and have enough fans that their statements are newsworthy, even if their history of untruths should have torpedoed their credibility by now.

But the basic premise that people who lie repeatedly shouldn't be trusted, shouldn't be relied upon for analysis, shouldn't be called for comment, and shouldn't be rewarded with media attention, is quite common, and should be easy to understand.

But, incredibly, Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon appears to be entirely unfamiliar with the concept:

Washington, D.C.: At what point does the media declare somone an unreliable source and stop giving them a platform? I'd think that anyone who continues to spout inaccuracies and/or falsehoods, no matter their political leanings, would be banished at some point. Why do they continue to get platforms on TV and in print to keep giving out bad info?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I don't quite know who you are referring to. I think most writers, myself included, try to note in a story if someone is quoted saying something that is flatly wrong. It's not like falsehoods like the "death panels" thing grow from people declaring it on CNN. It stars on blogs, then gets to talk radio and people believe things before the more traditional media has time to look into the issue.

Forget about the second half of the answer, in which Bacon blames everything on blogs; that's nonsense. It wasn't the blogs or talk radio that invented the falsehood that Al Gore claimed to have discovered Love Canal; it was Perry Bacon's Washington Post colleague Ceci Connolly (who Bacon praised in the same discussion.) Yes, a lot of misinformation starts in the fever swamps and blogs and talk radio and message boards -- and a lot starts at the Washington Post, too. But that isn't at all relevant to the question Bacon was asked.

The question Bacon was asked was very simple: Why does the media continue to give a platform to people who have proven to be unreliable sources? And Bacon doesn't understand the question. It has apparently never crossed his mind that it's one thing to "try to note in a story if someone is quoted saying something that is flatly wrong" -- but the obvious next step is: Stop taking them seriously. Stop quoting them. Stop giving them a platform.

Again: There are reasons you might not agree with that approach. But Bacon isn't disagreeing with it; he appears to be unfamiliar with the concept. That speaks volumes about the elite media: it never occurs to one of the Washington Post's star reporters that maybe he should stop giving attention to liars.

The Washington Post
Perry Bacon Jr.
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