USA Today and CBS News now have pieces on their web sites about Mike Rogers’s allegations that Senator Larry Craig is a closeted homosexual who engaged in sordid sexual encounters in public restrooms.
The CBS piece is a blog entry, and the USA Today piece is a column. No matter. The dam is broken. We’re seeing only a trickle now, but it’s about to be a flood.
I predict that, by the weekend, the story will have hit most of the major newspapers, and will be discussed on the Sunday yakkers. All using the excuse that “the blogosphere is buzzing” or phrases to that effect.
This is the approach used on today’s Big Media web site entries. The authors pretend that they aren’t reporting the allegations, so much as they are reporting or commenting on others’ discussions about the allegations. For example: an entry on CBS News’s “Public Eye” site blames it all on the Spokane Spokesman-Review, and waxes philosophical about the implications:
On Wednesday, the Spokane Spokesman-Review made the controversial decision to run a story about rumors swirling around Idaho Senator Larry Craig – a story that likely never would have seen the light of day a few short years ago. The basics of the story are as follows: Gay-rights activist Mike Rogers claimed on his blog and a syndicated radio program that confidential sources had provided him information concerning consensual homosexual relationships involving Craig. The senator responded to the story through a spokesperson, calling it “completely ridiculous.”
You can read the paper’s story here for the background and comments by Rogers and Craig’s spokesperson. What makes this particular incident an interesting test case, though, is not the detail — it’s the existence of the story itself. Until recently, the traditions of journalism would have kept such a story from being written. Rumors, of course, have always been a staple of politics, but news outlets have traditionally shied away from repeating those rumors out of concern that doing so would provide a level of validation. News organizations also legitimately feel that they would be doing the dirty work of political opponents to push rumor and innuendo.
None of that is to say legitimate journalists couldn’t try to look into such rumors, but the old rules mandated real evidence be produced before a public airing. In today’s atmosphere, however, when rumors can fly around the world in an instant, there is a direct challenge to the media’s old way of dealing with such stories. If the media ignores it, they appear oblivious to the world they purportedly are covering. If they cover it, they’re open to charges of rumor-mongering. So what to do?
The answer is easy: talk about how others are talking about it. If the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported it, it must be news! A similar piece approach is used in the USA Today column:
Journalists love to expose hypocritical politicians, like environmentalists who drive SUVs or the traditional values pols who frequent strip clubs. But the mainstream media (aka “old media” or MSM) have long been reluctant to write about closeted gay politicians, even those espousing an anti-gay rights agenda.
A blogger obliterated that line last week.
Although these web entries pretend to be simply reporting on others’ reporting, they’re not really fooling anyone. This is simply a back-door way to report Rogers’s allegations, despite the fact that the sourcing of the allegations doesn’t meet the standards that these organizations pretend to adhere to when publishing such explosive accusations.
By the way: while I think that the allegations never should have been made in the first place, I do think it’s appropriate to discuss them at this point. Whatever you think of Rogers’s actions — and I happen to think they are despicable — Rogers has a track record of accuracy in making similar allegations. That doesn’t mean they’re true; the sources are still anonymous and the entire story is completely unverified. But my precept for journalism is: tell the reader what you know and what you don’t know. As long as news organizations do this, I think it’s legitimate to air stories like this.
But, Big Media types, some advice: don’t pretend that you’re above it, and don’t bypass your nonexistent “standards” by reporting on the “buzz.” That’s gutless. If you think the story is worth discussing, discuss it.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Big Media’s “standards” are really no different than those of the bloggers they decry. It’s time for Big Media to admit it.