On Dec. 22, the Scottish newspaper The Daily Record published an article summarizing an interview its reporter Siobhan Synnot had with the superstar actor Will Smith. Near the end of the highly laudatory piece, the reporter wrote: "Remarkably, Will believes everyone is basically good" and immediately cited the actor saying: "Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'Let me do the most evil thing I can do today,'" said Will. "I think he woke up in the morning and, using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good.'"
What Will Smith said is probably true. Most of history's great evils were committed by people who somehow convinced themselves that the evil they did was really good. This is hardly a new problem. As the Prophet Hosea said 2,700 years ago, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness" (Hosea 4:6).
Some years ago, I made a video on goodness ("For Goodness Sake") with the director David Zucker in which I said almost the same thing word for word, that few people who do evil wake up in the morning saying, "Ah, another day to do evil."
In his play "Incident at Vichy," playwright Arthur Miller depicts a Jewish doctor in Nazi Occupied France who seeks a corrupt Nazi to bribe in order to escape Hitler's genocide of the Jews. The Jewish doctor knows that if he finds an idealistic Nazi, he is doomed. Miller's point was that there were bestial Nazis who believed that what they were doing was good.
Yet, Will Smith, making the same point, was quoted around the world as saying that he thinks that Hitler was a good person.
Every Hollywood and celebrities Internet site I checked -- about 30 -- headlined that "Will Smith thinks Hitler was a 'good' person" (note that 'good' was put in quotation marks as if the headline was accurately quoting Smith).
And most then opened their phony report with this: "U.S. actor Will Smith has stunned fans by reportedly declaring that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was essentially a 'good' person."
A complete fabrication.
The lying about Smith was not confined to Hollywood and celebrity Web sites. For example, Rense.com, which calls itself "World's No. 1 Alternative News Service -- Your First Source for Reality and Honest Journalism," offered this headline (www.rense.com/general79/smith.htm), reprinting a World Entertainment News piece: "Will Smith -- 'Hitler Was Essentially a Good Person.'"
A Web site presumably credible to its readers put into quotation marks something Smith never said.
Even some responsible sites completely distorted what Smith said. YNETnews.com wrote: "Hollywood superstar Will Smith told Scottish newspaper The Daily Record recently that he was convinced Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler did not fully understand the extent of the pain and suffering his actions would cause during his time in power in the 1930s and '40s."
Smith said that? Where? When? YNET -- to repeat, a usually responsible site -- made up that whole statement.
And, of course, millions of Internet readers believe all this, and then the sites publish readers' comments based on the lie the site published -- such as this one at YNET about "Will Smith losing millions of fans, being another Mel Gibson … "
To their credit, the mainstream print and electronic news media rarely misquoted Smith, but when they did cover it, the coverage was unhelpful and occasionally irresponsible.
The New York Post's gossip column, "Page Six," wrote this on Dec. 30: "December 27, 2007 -- Will Smith wisely backed away from comments he made to a Scottish reporter about Adolf Hitler." In fact, Smith never "backed away" from his comments, and there was nothing to back away from.
The Chicago Tribune column "Red Eye" opened its Dec. 24 report on Will Smith with this: "Will Smith likes to think there's good in everybody. Even Adolf Hitler."
A headline in The Australian read, "Will Smith sees the good in Hitler."
And on Dec. 27, Scotland's premier newspaper, The Scotsman, reported -- even after Smith's clarification -- "Last week, however, the warm feeling for Smith turned distinctly chilly. In an interview with the Daily Record, he was quoted as saying Adolf Hitler had just been trying to do good."
Smith reacted to what he correctly called "an awful and disgusting lie" and denounced Hitler as "a vile, heinous vicious killer responsible for one of the greatest acts of evil committed on this planet." At that point, Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, announced, "We welcome and accept Will Smith's statement that Hitler was a 'vicious killer' and that he did not mean for his remarks about the Nazi leader to be mistaken as praise." That was good and necessary. But, like the irresponsible blogs, the ADL leader characterized Smith's original statement this way: "Unfortunately, in citing Hitler in what appears to be a positive context, Smith stirred up a hornet's nest on the Internet, where hate groups and anti-Semites latched on to the remark and praised it."
But Will Smith never cited Hitler in "a positive context," and Foxman should never have said that Smith did. By doing so, Foxman preserved the original lie. A group dedicated to opposing defamation should have opposed the defamation of Will Smith, not subtly contributed to it.
What is to be learned? The lessons are simple:
1. Don't trust a Web site that doesn't cite a reputable source for a news item (opinions columns have different standards).
2. Then, check that source.
3. Don't trust headlines in newspapers -- read the entire column.
4. When a person is quoted, read his original statement in context.
In the meantime, however, millions of people around the world will continue to believe the lie that Will Smith said that Hitler was a good man.
And the media will, apparently, pay no price.