March 9, 2014

The story went out last November through the CBS News network with a title both heartbreaking and horrifying: "Woman Battling Kidney Cancer Losing Company Health Plan Due To Obamacare."

Only problem? It wasn't true. On any level. Even the most green journalist only needed to ask a few basic questions to watch this story crumble. But these weren't green journalists, but the Washington Bureau for CBS News. And they didn't seem to care that they screwed up the story royally:

After [CBS Deputy Bureau Chief Ward] Sloane hung up on me, I waited ten minutes, then called the D.C. bureau again.

This time, Heather, the producer who had hung up on me an hour earlier, answered the phone. To my surprise, she was much friendlier.

She confided that she had just been talking to Ward Sloane, and that CBS would be pulling the story from their website and taking it down from the server that goes to their affiliates.

But the story had aired in November—and then went viral. CBS was closing the barn door.

Heather agreed: ideally that sound-bite would have been eliminated when the story was edited. "The problem is with the Internet," she added, "once something gets out there, it is impossible to reel it back in." But isn't this all the more reason why journalists should be very careful to check their facts?

She also explained that originally, she thought I said that McGinnis, the CBS correspondent, had made the misleading remark about pre-conditions. "I knew she wouldn't say that!"

Later, I asked whether CBS was thinking about running a retraction.

"There is no really efficient way to get it out there" she replied. "And the problem is not what Susan (McGinnis) said. It was this other woman's mis-characterization."

CBS was still hung up on the notion that their correspondent hadn't made a mistake. But "this other woman" was their source, and the heroine of their story.

That's just the tip of the iceberg on how completely wrong CBS News got the story. Read the full account here and here. Yet CBS News, despite the fact that absolutely nothing about that report was true--from the cancer diagnosis to the increased rates due to Obamacare to the fact that Fishericks had found another policy fairly easily--thinks they've done their job because the reporter didn't directly provide the incorrect lede or framing of the story.

This is why we can't have nice things, people.

Stanford University social scientist Robert Proctor is studying agnotology, the phenomenon of cultural ignorance--from corporate misinformation to Nazi propaganda and he and others can point directly at the failures of the mainstream media in propagating just so much ignorance amongst the populace:

But then there's ignorance custom-designed to manipulate the public. "The myth of the 'information society' is that we're drowning in knowledge," he says. "But it's easier to propagate ignorance."

That's especially so when issues are so complicated that it's easier to present them as the topics for discussion in which both sides are granted equal time.

Big Tobacco's public relations campaign against the anti-smoking movement, for example, was aimed at "manufacturing a 'debate,' convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present 'both sides' of it," reported Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book, "Merchants of Doubt."

The industry correctly perceived that no journalist would ever get fired for giving the two sides equal weight, even when that balance wasn't warranted by the facts.

As Marshall McLuhan once said, One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There's always more than you can cope with.

It is supposed to be the responsibility of the media in order to have the privilege of the commons of public airwaves to make sense of that information. Their failure should not be without consequences. But unfortunately, it is all of us who pay those consequences.

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