You can't unring the bell

By Randall Poulton | Sep 19, 2019

Dateline Aug. 28, 2019, by Lawrence O’Donnell: "Last night on this show, I discussed information that wasn't ready for reporting. I repeated statements a single source told me about the president's finances and loan documents with Deutsche Bank. Saying “if true,” as I discussed the information, was simply not good enough. I did not go through the rigorous verification and standards process here at MSNBC before repeating what I heard from my source. Had it gone through that process, I would not have been permitted to report it. I should not have said it on-air or posted it on Twitter. I was wrong to do so."

This is just the latest example of what we have come to call “fake news,” much of it aimed at President Trump. In this case, the allegation was that Trump had secured loans by having “Russian Oligarchs” co-sign the promissory notes. Not only was the story a lie, it defied common sense on many levels. Yet it was broadcast over the air and into the homes of over a million viewers. But that is only part of the problem: Between O’Donnell’s “Twitter post” and follow-on social media re-posts, tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of people were fed this lie. Many will never learn that NBC retracted the story. It is impossible to un-ring a bell.

Journalistic standards are upside-down. The president of the United States should be assumed innocent and treated with respect. Both because of the august nature of the office (e.g., leader of the free world) and because it is in our national interest to do so. Undermining the president gives our adversaries the impression we are weak and divided. Imagine if, instead of the carping about the ill effects of a trade war with China, the media were foursquare behind the president’s effort to level the playing field. The China deal would already be done and the trade war would be over!

Let me digress for a moment. The trade war with China started over 20 years ago. Until recently, the United States was losing badly. Historically, we tried to blunt China’s attacks on U.S. companies with appeasement and half-hearted political pressure. Under Trump, we have finally joined the battle in earnest, fully applying the economic “weapons” at our disposal. Make no mistake, China will lose the war and the “peace treaty” will leave America in a far better position.

Now let’s examine O’Donnell’s claim that MSNBC (the cable news version of NBC) maintains a “rigorous verification and standards process.” Two of the biggest personalities at NBC are Brian Williams and Mike Barnicle. Both men have repeatedly fabricated news stories and been fired for doing so. So, what on earth are they doing back on the air when, what has been well verified, is that they are liars! Is this an example of the “rigorous verification and standards process” at NBC?

Unfortunately, many media people, including Lawrence O’Donnell, let their personal hatred for Trump infect their “reporting.” And, others, like Williams and Barnicle, can’t resist flat-out making up the news. Then there is a third class of “reporters” who routinely but unwittingly deliver fake news. These folks don’t do it on purpose; they just haven’t a clue and never will. Check out these beauties from the last few days:

Here is what CBS morning anchor Hoda Kotb had to say following a near hysterical on-the-scene report about hurricane Dorian, delivered by some wanna-bee weatherman, while standing on a sunny Florida beach with swimmers and sunbathers in the background.

Hoda: “Why would people go to the beach when there is a hurricane coming?” This with Dorian hundreds of miles away. I don’t know Hoda, why would you go to work today when you have next week off? There is an old saying that applies here: Better to be silent and let people wonder if you are dumb as a rock, rather than open your mouth and remove all doubt!

And, of course, Roman numerals can be tricky. Just ask the local female talking head who repeatedly called Title X (pronounced title ten), “title x” while reading a story about Planned Parenthood. Ironically, it may well be title “eye- x”, aka Title IX (pronounced title nine) that helped get this gal her job! If you don’t know what Title X is, maybe you should find out before you read the story!

Newspaper editors used to be tough, experienced masters of the written word. Not so much anymore (except for my editor, who is awesome!). A couple weeks ago, the BDN ran a story about the NextEra power plant on Cousin’s Island near Portland. In the story they reported the plant burned coal to generate electricity! Except, there are no coal-fired generation plants in Maine. None. Zero. Not on Cousins Island. Not anywhere. Like O’Donnell’s lie, I am sure thousands of people believed the initial story and never read the correction. You can’t un-ring a bell.

I was taught the rules of responsible reporting are: 1) telling readers who, what, where, when, why, how; and 2) when in doubt, leave it out! Apparently, these standards no longer apply. Instead it’s “when in doubt, shout it out”! Today’s “news” stories are often a mix of opinion and speculation, such as when O’Donnell prefaced his attack on Trump with “if true.” Ah, “if true.” If true, O’Donnell would be a legitimate journalist and not an embarrassment to MSNBC, NBC and professional reporters everywhere. If true, the noxious smoke from the coal-fired boilers on Cousins Island would blanket Portland. But it is not true, and you can’t un-ring the bell.

Randall Poulton lives in Winterport.

 

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