Two recent stories based on faulty premises -- an Illinois Review post that falsely claimed President Obama had supported “Stand Your Ground” as an Illinois state legislator, and a since-corrected BuzzFeed report that pushed the erroneous conclusion that gun violence prevention group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) has suffered a membership drop -- have nonetheless spread throughout the right-wing media.
The cases are not parallel -- Illinois Review is a minor conservative Illinois political blog (their Twitter handle has about 3,000 followers) whose story was too good to check for the right-wing media, while the BuzzFeed story is an unfortunate outlier for a publication that typically produces good reporting. But the articles nonetheless illustrate the first-mover problem of correcting misinformation -- once a charge is levied and begins gaining momentum it becomes difficult to stop, no matter how clearly false the claim, due to the right-wing media apparatus that will push any story considered damaging to progressives.
The basis of the July 22 BuzzFeed article was that MAIG is losing membership ( “is finding it hard to keep its membership up” ) because it has become too strident in its recent push for stronger gun laws. But BuzzFeed's premise was false: MAIG has actually seen an increase in membership during the period the article covered, with more than 100 mayors joining the coalition during that time of increased political action.
Buzzfeed has since updated its article, making a minor change to the text “to reiterate the fact that Mayors Against Illegal Guns is gaining more members than it's losing.” But of course, that “fact” completely repudiates the premise of the article.
And of course, the damage has been done. The idea of MAIG shedding membership has already spread through the conservative echo chamber. The story was picked up by a number of right-wing outlets, with Breitbart News and the New York Post stating outright that the story indicated that the group's membership was down overall. The Post article in particular, which ran under the headline “weakened arsenal,” linked the group “struggling to replace ex-members” to their focus “on banning weapons and other tough new gun-control measures” (by contrast, a New York Daily News piece cited the BuzzFeed report but framed the story with the fact that the group is larger and growing faster than ever before).
These sorts of misguided stories have an impact on the political debate. One NRA activist, who acknowledged that the number of mayors leaving “isn't a huge blow to MAIG,” wrote that BuzzFeed's story “isn't good for MAIG. They will have to counter this meme, and that's good for us. Make them work for it.”
Likewise, on July 21, Illinois Review reported that while President Obama has called for the reexamination of Stand Your Ground self-defense laws in response to the Florida trial of George Zimmerman, he “actually co-sponsored” a 2004 bill “that strengthened Illinois' 1961 'stand your ground' law.” The premise of the story was false; the bill Obama co-sponsored did not establish Florida-style Stand Your Ground.
As Slate's Dave Weigel pointed out the morning of July 22, that claim should have triggered “alarm bells” for more credible journalists, because “Florida was pretty famously the first state to pass a 'stand your ground' law, a year after this Illinois bill.”
Reviewing the text of the bill Obama supported, Weigel found that it was actually a tweak to self-defense laws that only apply when a person is defending their property, a far narrower provision that wouldn't have applied in the Zimmerman case. The entire basis of the Illinois Review story -- that Obama had hypocritically criticized Stand Your Ground laws after previously supporting one -- was false.
Unfortunately, the “alarm bells” didn't ring for the conservative media. Throughout the day on July 22, the charge was levied on a variety of right-wing outlets, including National Review and Fox News, and led the NRA's daily cable news show. On the morning of July 23 the allegation appeared in an editorial by the Wall Street Journal, and the claim spread to more credible outlets when that editorial was read on the air on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
None of the outlets channeling that charge bothered to review the law to check whether the story was accurate. No one else bothered to do the due diligence and figure out if the charge was accurate; instead they just ran with it, citing an outlet of which that they had likely never previously heard.
It's what simply what they do. Obama's Stand Your Ground hypocrisy and the MAIG membership drop now join the Obamaphones and Friends of Hamas and health care death panels and the rest in the alternate reality that the right-wing media have crafted.