Niall Ferguson's Newsweek cover story on President Obama exemplifies a deficiency in today's media. As criticism of Ferguson's shoddy work mounted -- both from outside and inside of Newsweek/The Daily Beast -- Newsweek explained to Politico's Dylan Byers that Newsweek “rel[ies] on our writers to submit factually accurate material.” Indeed, Byers also noted that Newsweek does not even have a fact-checking department.
This admission is disturbing on face. Newsweek wants to sell you stories and news about the world but can't even be bothered to check the claims it publishes. Even worse, they didn't seem all that uncomfortable with the admission. Newsweek's defense is that others are this lackadaisical at journalism, which is to say Newsweek has no defense. In a media environment without fact-checkers, it's no wonder we have fabulists and problems with facts and the media. But there's a more pernicious ramification of Newsweek's abdication of journalistic practices: This is what the predatory conservative echo-chamber and Fox News count on.
Fox and the right-wing echo chamber exploit these vulnerabilities in the media. When the media process seems shoddy (regardless of whether it actually is) and the result produces news that is inconsistent with conservative ideology, right-wing media pounce and attack the outlet as part of some left-wing media cabal. We've seen Fox do this from Dan Rather to Politico to ABC News to MSNBC and more. On the other hand, when they find the argument useful, the right-wing echo chamber can herald the piece and ignore inaccuracies within.
It's no surprise that while discussing Ferguson's article across multiple programs, Fox never discussed the myriad factual problems in Ferguson's piece that one could find with a rudimentary Google search. This is even as Ferguson's self-professed friend who writes for the same outlet called the piece "absurd propaganda."
But Fox ingeniously imbues its perspective with what Stephen Colbert famously labeled "truthiness." For example, appearing on On the Record With Greta Van Susteren, here is how Washington Examiner chief political correspondent Byron York described Ferguson:
I think the striking thing about the story is that it comes from Niall Ferguson, who's kind of a member of this global, glamorous elite, people who are at home in London, they're at home in New York, and it's very fashionable among most of them to support President Obama. So for someone to come out and give an across the board denunciation of the Obama presidency - and he's right, he spends a lot of time on Obama's foreign policy, as well as accusing him of failing on economic policy - for somebody to give such an across the board indictment -- of his stature is pretty unusual. [Fox News, On the Record With Greta Van Susteren, 08/20/12]
York did not say that Ferguson is part of a group that supported Obama, or that Ferguson himself ever supported Obama (both would be outright lies). It's that York wants the conservative audience to be vindicated because Ferguson feels like someone with his biography is more likely to be aligned with liberals. York's point relies on innuendo, so it's impossible to fact-check directly. But it's precisely this kind of argument by innuendo that allows Fox to make it big news that a former McCain adviser wrote an anti-Obama article.
Meanwhile, Newsweek's avoidance of fact-checking is just one example of a larger erosion of journalism, led by shrinking newsrooms, layoffs, and more. The erosion of the structures of journalism in turn fuels a growing lack of credibility for the media in general, and offers an opportunity for the conservative echo chamber to fill the gap. This trend is incredibly hard to reverse, largely because of what Julian Sanchez has labeled epistemic closure.
The only antidote for this right-wing approach is truth. Fact-checked, rigorous, researched truth. And that can be especially hard in these days of shrinking media budgets. This is why it's increasingly challenging for an outlet like Newsweek to do what it does and progressively easier for Fox and right-wing media to do what they do. That's why it's important to support journalists who do their job well, and outlets that have a fair and honest process. It's the only chance to save the rest of the media from becoming like Fox.