Empty news

Posted: Mar 21, 2005 12:00 AM
The advent of CNN and the 24-hour news cycle has created tremendous pressure on the print media to fill their pages with something?anything?to keep the readers coming back. Amid this brutal competition, high mindedness is often an afterthought. The question became how to grasp the attention of this fractured audience. If there aren?t any good stories to report, make one up--create the news, print a few salacious details, anything to fill your pages and shock readers into paying attention.

I believe this is what Historian Daniel J. Boorstin dolefully referred to as a pseudo event?the act of creating news just to have news to report. The danger lies in the blurring of the line between real news and empty, artificial fluff.

Exhibit A: The Washington Post recently printed a false story about me: In its Sunday Style section, the Post claimed that I was ridiculed at the Gridiron Club dinner, an annual dinner/roast where a wild pack of journalists gulp drinks and skewer their colleagues.

The Post claimed I was the target of some roasting, to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd?s ?Sweet Home Alabama.? The song has this chorus: ?Sweet Home Alabama, where the skies are so blue / Sweet Home Alabama, Lord I?m coming home to you.?

The Post reported that as part of a skit, performers at the Gridiron club changed the lyrics into:

"Armstrong?s propaganda It sounds so true He?ll tout our agenda When the check goes through?

Funny stuff. Just one thing: the event never took place. The Gridiron had planned to do the skit, but ended up dropping it from the program. This is where things get real interesting. The Post not only reports that the skit took place, but that it was a rousing success: "It was really pretty darned funny, we are told. . . .?

Really? Told by whom? Certainly not by anyone actually in attendance at the event. All of which begs the question, did the Post reporter who concocted the story even attend the event, or did he just use an outdated program to cobble the story together? And where do you get the gall to create a reaction that never happened? I can understand putting a story outline together in advance of an event so as to better enable you to meet tight deadlines. But how do you create an audience reaction? How do you simply make up part of the news you?re supposed to be objectively recording? The fact that the reporter simply created an audience response suggests something more than sloppy reporting?it suggests outright bias.

But don?t expect the Post to admit that. They?ve since printed a soft retraction, reporting that "the article incorrectly reported that a satirical version of ?Sweet Home Alabama? was performed at the [Gridiron Club] dinner and described reaction to it. Such a skit was written, but it was dropped before the final performance." For obvious reasons, the retraction failed to mention that the reporter made up an entire skit skewing me. Is it too much to ask for a full attraction? I don?t expect the Post to admit that they are willing participants in the trivialization of news stories. But how about some acknowledgement that they reported false news about me? Anything less is simply dishonorable.

Now I?ll be the first to admit that I?ve had my own problems with journalistic ethics. But when called to task I stood up and took full responsibility for my actions. Because if you don?t, how can the readers ever trust what you write? That?s the question every Post reader should be asking themselves right now. How can they trust a paper that is so desperate to fill its own space, that it plays fast and free with the facts whenever the opportunity to skewer a conservative presents itself?

And it?s not like this is an isolated event. A couple years back I set up a series of meeting with Republican Senate and House leaders to discuss how to diversify the party and create more of a genuine give and take about the Republican message in urban communities. The Post pounced, accusing the Republicans of engaging in back door affirmative action. The story was full of sloppy reporting and flat out untruths. At the time I wrote a letter to the editors at the Post, asking them to correct the numerous errors in the story. They did not. I?ll try again with regard to their latest concocted story about me in hope that they?ll do something rather extraordinary-- print the full truth. I?m not holding my breath though.