TCS Daily

Don't Trust If They Won't Verify

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 15, 2006 12:00 AM

Once again, fake news is in the news, as it turns out that many moving stories of carnage in Lebanon were not only moving, but, well, fake. This raises major questions about the future of the news business, and offers a significant threat to free expression. As Tim Rutten observed in the Los Angeles Times:

Many, including grisly images from the Qana tragedy, clearly are posed for maximum dramatic effect. There is an entire series of photos of children's stuffed toys poised atop mounds of rubble. All are miraculously pristinely clean and apparently untouched by the devastation they purportedly survived. (Reuters might want to check its freelancers' expenses for unexplained Toys R Us purchases.) In some cases, the bloggers seem to have uncovered the same photographer using more than one identity. There's an improbable photo by Hajj of a Koran burning atop the rubble of a building supposedly destroyed by an Israeli aircraft hours before. Nothing else in sight is alight. (With photos, as in life, when something seems too perfect to be true, it's almost always because it is.) In other photos, the same wrecked building is portrayed multiple times with the same older woman -- one supposes she ought to be called a model -- either lamenting its destruction or passing by in different costumes. . . .

Some of it may stem from the urge every photographer feels to make a photo perfect. Some of it probably flows from a simple economic imperative -- a freelancer who produces dramatic images gets picked up more and paid more. Moreover, the obscenely anti-Israeli tenor of most of the European and world press means there's an eager market for pictures of dead Lebanese babies.

It's worth noting in this context that there is no similar flow of propagandistic images coming from the Israeli side of the border. That's because one side -- the democratically elected government of Israel -- views death as a tragedy and the other -- the Iranian financed terrorist organization Hezbollah -- sees it as an opportunity.

And the press seems eager to play along. Writing in the Rocky Mountain News, Dave Kopel notes:

I e-mailed some questions to Linda Wagner, the AP's director of media relations and public affairs. She sidestepped my question about access to the building, stating: "We know that, generally, access to combat sites for journalists in Lebanon is greater than it has been for journalists operating within Israel, Iraq or Afghanistan."

On July 22, Reuters published a photo of a woman crying because Israeli planes had just destroyed her apartment. On Aug. 5, the AP published a photo of the same woman in Beirut, crying because Israeli planes had just destroyed her house.

We've seen this kind of fakery before, of course, and not just where Israel is concerned. The Boston Globe ran fake rape photos purporting to show U.S. troops raping Iraqi women. The photos turned out to come from a Hungarian porn site. Nor does the fakery stop with photos. Rutten's own L.A. Times ran a nasty piece about Paul Bremer's departure from Iraq, saying that he didn't even give a farewell speech and suggesting that he was afraid to look Iraqis in the eye. In fact, Bremer had given a speech that was nationally televised in Iraq. As columnist John Leo observed in response to this bit of bogosity: "What's new about the press is that so many people who follow it with a critical eye now have an outlet to howl about inaccuracy and partisanship. The big media used to be able to shrug off critics like this. Now they can't."

No, they can't. But I have to say that I'm disappointed with their response nonetheless. I had hoped that increased scrutiny from bloggers would make the press more honest, but so far there's no sign of that. And bad or dishonest reporting is destructive and unpatriotic (note that reporting bad news honestly is not, a distinction that dishonest media defenders sometimes try to elide). Can a free press survive if the public concludes that it's in the business of purveying politically motivated propaganda on behalf of civilization's enemies? And, if this kind of thing keeps up, will people be able to resist coming to such a conclusion? The press often responds to business scandals by noting that misbehavior by businessmen is likely to undermine support for free enterprise and lead to public demands for the abolition of free enterprise. I fear that the same dynamic may lead to reduced support for a free press, and to demands for government regulation of reporting in wartime.

In the meantime, we have to hope that the market will correct the problem before things get that bad. Perhaps newspapers will be less willing to use photos and stories from AP and Reuters when those stories are likely to be lies, and, and I strongly suspect that readers will be less likely to trust newspapers when they run stories that are exploded as propaganda. It's not too late for the press to save itself yet. But it's getting close.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a TCS Daily contributing editor.

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