Saturday, March 6, 2010

Anatomy Of A Rumor

 Surprise! Surprise! I wasn't fired as some readers suggested yesterday for speculating on what Sarah Palin would do with the free swag she grabbed at a West Hollywood gift shop promoting the Academy Awards.

To the charge of speculating, I plead guilty. Allow me the Bill O'Reilly defense. I was exercising my opinion as a columnist. That's what we do. If I were a hard news reporter for a legitimate family newspaper, I would avoided the silliness that she took the goodies for free and left it at that. The result would have left her looking more of a nouveau riche dolt than some think she is.

I rehash all this as a lead-in to a much more serious matter that is First Amendment-ish critical of the veracity of news we read on the Internet. Unsubstantiated rumors of timely, juicy subject matters tend to be repeated often enough that somehow they wind themselves into the real world of truthism.

Thank your luck stars we have a small segment of professional journalists remaining in the Main Stream Media to shoot down these errant arrows. If they fail, occasionally the second tier breaks through such as the National Enquirer's scoop of John Edwards' lies in a child-producing love affair. And, let's not understate the third tier -- specialty news websites -- that do a terrific job at keeping their opponents honest.

But when a rumor is circulated that Chief Justice John Roberts is planning to step down, we're talking national importance. The game playing -- the quest to be first -- must stop.

The Roberts rumor was launched by RadarOnline, a web site specializing in Hollywood gossip.

I'll let the Los Angeles Times pick up the story from here..

Wow! A Georgetown University professor deliberately told the falsehood to his students and in a matter of hours was an instant sensation through cyberspace. By the time the prof admitted the lie as a class project to verify everything they see, hear or read, it was too late.

It took the legal blog "Above Law" to track down and shoot it dead.

I consider the Roberts rumor a classic lesson for civilian news junkies. Verify the source. Is there prima facia data supporting the rumor. Has the subject of the rumor been contacted. What does the bearer of the rumor have to gain.

For years, newspaper editors followed the lead of the Washington Post established during Watergate. Managing Editor Ben Bradlee insisted his two young rising stars, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, have three sources confirming anything to be published.

It's too bad those standards cannot be applied to citizen journalists with any hope of punishment other to disavow them as a plague.

My license for opinion as a columnist has self-imposed rules. Yes, I slant a story to support an angle and prove a point. I will pump the facts in favor and deflate the best shot the opponents offer. Columnists, after all, are advocates.

But decency and empathy rules. Satire trumps malice. Defaming or embarrassing a family's personal life is strictly forbidden.

Which brings me back to Mrs. Palin. I was prepared to defend her to the death when a rumor briefly gained traction that she and husband Todd were filing for divorce. The closest the rumor came was a fourth-hand anonymous source who was an avowed enemy of the Alaskan couple.

There are only two ways that drivel should gone public -- an announcement by either of the two or a filing for dissolution proceedings in a court of law.

 The Times story on the Roberts rumor said it best.

"It is a good reminder of the value of old-fashioned reporting, whether that comes in print or online -- just someone exercising a certain amount of news judgment," said David Lat, managing editor of the legal blog Above the Law, which first identified Georgetown law professor Peter Tague as the unwitting source of the story.

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