When 'News' Is Actually a Lie

It's disturbingly convenient for a lot of people to decide what "facts" really are.

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I was just thrilled this year to finally see my beloved Buffalo Bills win the team's first-ever Super Bowl. That 70-yard pass by Ryan Fitzpatrick was something to behold—and the 99-yard run by Fred Jackson with less than a minute to go was an exciting and game-winning feat.

All of that is a fantasy, of course—a lie, more accurately. But in an era when people self-select their news, choose their own "facts," and think rumors are acceptable stories for news agencies to report, why not go for the gold (or the Super Bowl ring)?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez is the most recent victim of this new approach to "news." A website called The Daily Caller reported that Menendez (already under some fire for failing to report trips he accepted on a donor's private plane) had solicited prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. The report gained enough traction to put Menendez on the defensive—making it even more complicated for the senator, news-wise, since any public denial merely gives legitimate news organizations an opening to write about something unproved and perhaps untrue. Admirably, the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the New York Post, and ABC News declined to run with the unsubstantiated news (and ABC pointed out it had been approached by GOP operatives with the damaging info about the Democratic senator). And the Washington Post did its own investigation, reporting recently that at least one of the women in question has recanted, saying she was paid to lie about having been paid by Menendez for sex.

Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped the story machine. Other news organizations (and certainly The Daily Caller, a conservative site) have continued reporting on the issue, cloaking it as some sort of media war between the website and the Post (which surely doesn't care what some agenda-driven website thinks of the Pulitzer-winning paper).

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

It used to be the news organizations would quote other news sources on breaking stories, particularly when there was no time to confirm the reported news. This was back when the organizations filing the initial reports were major papers or networks with basic journalistic standards. But now that anyone with a laptop can call himself or herself a journalist, the line defining professional and nonprofessional—and sleazy and nonsleazy—has blurred dramatically.

And it's not limited to news organizations. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas tweeted recently that illegal immigrants were pouring over the border, saying on his Twitter account: "Friend on border sez 300 ppl coming across his property every night. And Napolitano sez border is under control?"

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

What "friend?" What evidence is there, if any? We don't know. It could be true, but all we have is a line from a senator's office with no background or source identification. But since Cornyn is a U.S. senator, the tweet gets attention. And since he's a U.S. senator, he's presumed by the news media to be a credible source, so the report—true or not—gets written about anyway, even if only as a "controversy."

It's an awful way to handle facts in the Internet era. And it's disturbingly convenient for a lot of people. How 'bout those first-place Buffalo Sabres?

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