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PAINTER: Newspaper’s diligence foils fake news attempt

• Dec 11, 2017 at 2:00 PM

The story didn’t garner as much attention as some others in recent weeks. Some of the stories that have been in the limelight are accounts of the investigation of Russia’s alleged meddling into the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and even the firing of NBC “Today Show” co-host Matt Lauer. There were others, as well.

But the story that took a backseat is an important one, especially for the credibility of the news media. Late last month, the Washington Post exposed an attempt by an anti-media organization to get the newspaper to print a “fake news” story.

For those of you who are unaware of the story, an organization called Project Veritas hired a woman to tell the Washington Post that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore got her pregnant in 1992, and that she got an abortion at age 15. The fake news ploy came on the heels of a Washington Post investigative piece that resulted in multiple allegations that Moore had inappropriate relationships with teenage girls.

But the Post didn’t fall for the ruse. The newspaper fact-checked the accuser’s claim and determined that her story was false.

Kathleen Parker, a national columnist whose columns once appeared in the Grand Haven Tribune, wrote in a column that the Post did what it is supposed to do.

“This isn’t cause for trumpets and heraldry, mind you,” she wrote. “It is what journalists do.”

She also wrote: “Excuse the echo, but this bears repeating: Those who would purposely mislead or seek to confuse others are bad people.”

Parker is absolutely right. The Post did its homework and foiled the efforts of a media-hating organization.

Unfortunately, the news media hasn’t always been so diligent. Some of you may remember that the Washington Post was duped in 1981 by one of its own reporters. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her series of articles on an 8-year-old heroin addict. She fabricated the story and was fired.

Then there was an incident involving The New Republic in 1998. Stephen Glass was a star writer who turned in a number of fabricated stories. He also was fired. That story became the subject of a movie, titled “Shattered Glass.”

Now we seem to be in the era of “fake news,” in which there are online sites that deliberately produce fake news stories. Some of those stories can be found on social media sites such as Facebook. The Trump administration also has the reputation of using the fake news term when it disagrees with a story that is critical of the administration.

It is important that the news media follow the lead of the Washington Post. It is critical for the news media’s credibility.

So, it is especially important that the news media guard against fake news and thoroughly check out sources and information before writing or broadcasting a sensitive news story.

It is easy to become too complacent. When I was managing editor of the Grand Haven Tribune, I sometimes would trust readers who would write letters to the editor that their signatures were authentic. I once printed a letter with a false name; the writer had signed the letter by spelling his name backwards, some told me later. I should have been more careful.

While there has been a proliferation of fake news accusations lately, fake news issues have been around a long time. Jacob Scoll wrote an article for Politico Magazine in which he outlined the history of fake news stories.

One that I found interesting is that Ben Franklin made up stories about Indians working with King George II during the Revolutionary War. Scoll also wrote that, during the “yellow journalism” period, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer would publish exaggerated crime stories to boost their newspapers’ circulations.

Then there was Hearst’s involvement with the Spanish-American War. Scoll wrote: “When Hearst’s correspondent in Havana wired that there would be no war, Hearst wrote, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’”

Fortunately, the news media now strives to be more objective. Fake news accusations will still surface, but the news media can alleviate some of the mistrust by doing its homework, just as the Washington Post did recently.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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