Truth and lies in journalism the new norm?

A little bit ago I got into an argument with the guy who runs a local Internet blog.

Someone had posted lies about me on his blog, and I want to be clear, they were not opinions I didn’t like. They were false “facts,” things simply not true.

I asked the guy to take the lies down.

“It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “On a blog, people say one thing, someone else says another, we eventually arrive at the truth.”

“But they’re lies,” I said. “They didn’t happen. You should ask the poster for proof.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” he said again. “It’s like a bar, where people discuss things. Eventually we arrive at the truth.”,

Maybe that is the way of things now, but it left a bad taste.

This takes some adjusting because 40 years of training to respect, and seek, truth are hard to forget.

My name and picture appear by what I write, both on my column and on my this blog, so I feel an obligation to print what I believe to be true. When I goof up I run a correction, an apology.

What irked is the lies run were posted by someone who did not sign their name. This person knew he was held to no standard. This has obvious dangers.

I am told to develop a thick hide, and I try to. Still, it’s one thing to be called “a rambling idiot,” and liberal lover of terrorists, as one poster on my own blog just did. It is quite another to be lied about.

I remember, several years ago, that some guy who posts an internet column on the sorts of web sites that feature a lot of waving flags and screaming eagles, accused someone called “Charles Trentelman” of “writing from his ivory tower in  Berkley” about some so=called liberal cause, or something.

I called the guy and complained, but got nowhere with him, despite the fact that there is noone with my name anywhere in the world except Ogden, Utah. It was very frustrating. 

A Top of Utahn who found that out this week is Angelika Bertrand, Clearfield. She wrote a letter to the editor, published Monday, asking why so much money had to be spent putting on an air show at Hill Air Force Base when there’s a war on and so many people are complaining about their taxes.

She has a fair concern. Air shows do cost money. President Obama’s frequent travels are being criticized in the same “can we really afford this?” light.

Before publication, her letter ran on the Standard’s web site. (click!)  It quickly garnered more than 40 comments, none from people who signed their names, almost all accusing her of hating the Air Force.

Opinions are one thing, but several posts went farther. They lashed out at her critics, and were signed “Angelika Bertrand.” One that said “How dare you people talk trash on me. I hate Utah. I hate America, and I hate you people.”

I called and asked why she said that.

“Said what?” I read it to her.

“I didn’t write that,” she said. “Is that on the Internet?”

I told her yes, told her where to find it. She took a look, then called back.

“I think people are a little nuts,” she said. I did not argue with her.

Our tech people quickly deleted that post, and a couple others with her name she didn’t write. Turns out, she is far from hating anything. Her late husband was Air Force, serving two tours in Vietnam, two in Korea, then Germany, which is where he married her.

“I don’t hate the Air Force,” she said. “I just made a point how much they are spending when the economy is winding down. There is nothing hateful about that.”

Not in the least, but she expressed her concern in a world where lies can take the form of people pretending to be you to spur on others spewing hate at you.

Truth did eventually come out, so maybe the process worked as that blogger up at the top told me it would, but I got the feeling the whole episode left a bad taste in Angelika’s mouth.

I know it did in mine.

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17 Responses to Truth and lies in journalism the new norm?

  1. flatlander100 says:

    Charlie:

    As you note, you work for the legit media, in which standards of journalistic ethics apply. And should.

    There are blogs that operate by the same standards — as rigorously applied as they are in the Main Stream Media [MSM] as a rule. Josh Marshall’s “Talking Points Memo” comes to mind.

    Then there are other blogs that are more or less the media equivalent of “the wild west,” akin to the way movie oaters invariably refer to Tombstone or Dodge City:: “wide open cow towns.” Those are the ones that you’re upset with.

    I agree there is no excuse for flying under false colors — for posting in someone elses name [or pseudonym]. None. As for the errors in fact — again, unfortunate always and reprehensible if deliberate. And when I discover I’ve been wrong in something I’ve posted [I post on blogs and here under pseudonyms], I get up a correction [and apology] as fast as I can. As you noted, not everyone does that, and some people I’m sure deliberately post false information for reasons they think valid. [Can we all say Glen Beck?]

    But I’d argue there are advantages to having some “wide open cowtown” blogs. I learned something from the venomous attacks on the woman who posted the Hill AFB show comment. I get a handle on what’s “out there” in terms of public discussion when I read the heated name calling, etc. that comes up on such blogs where it is [often] not taken down. [The SE is good about taking down uncivil stuff like racist posts, etc.] However much it upsets you — or me — that kind of discourse, comment, discussion is part of the American conversation on public matters. It’s useful to know about it and what it is like, however repellent you — or I — may find it.

    The other thing to keep in mind in re: the wide open blogosphere is this: blogs and posters [even those posting under pseudonyms] generally run true to form, and so acquire reputations. There are anonymous posters on WCF who I’ve come, over time, to trust, whose posts I accept as factual because, over time, they’ve proved to be so. And there are others whose posts I won’t take at face value absent additional corroborating evidence — again, taught by experience. Just as people come to take the writings of some reporters as reliable [you, for example], and others not [Judith Miller for example].

    So, it boils down in the end to this: do “we” — Americans, the national debate, society, “us” — gain more by the wide-openness of some blogs than we lose? I think we do. But you have to learn to pick and choose. Caveat emptor.

  2. Lance Stamper says:

    Charles,
    You are upset that someone posted “lies” about you.
    In 2004, you ran a memorable series of articles about a Utah unit deployed to Iraq that lacked many supplies, including toilet paper. As a recently returned Iraq War veteran, and Senior NCO in the U.S. Army, I followed these articles with much interest. Based on your articles, other readers were writing in to volunteer supplies for these Soldiers. I ultimately contacted the unit’s Sergeant Major to find out if I could help and sent him links to your articles.
    He had no idea that these stories had run, and stated they were NOT true. During one short period they did in fact run out of toilet paper in Kuwait, but that every Soldier had access to the PX and supplies. He stated flat out that the information you printed was not true.
    I went to the Standard-Examiner and met with you in the lobby. I told you what the Sergeant major had said, and provided you his email so you could follow-up directly.
    As you declined to contact the unit and also declined to correct your articles, I find your complaints of a blog very amusing. And yes, my name appears on here, Lance Stamper.

  3. laytonian says:

    We do not arrive at the truth, when two anonymous sources lie.

    We do not arrive at the truth, when two talking heads yell at each other on television.

    We are being slowly poisoned by whoever can shout the loudest on the radio, who has the most money to foist their political views into their “news” operation, and by bloggers without a clue.

    I feel for honest journalism, the investigative journalism that uncovered Watergate. Who’s going to watch the store, and who’s going to watch the watchers?

    BTW: this is NOT a blog. This is an opinion forum, and identified as such. I’ve learned in the past few years that many people do not know the difference.

  4. The Standard Examiner has published lies about me. Many times.

  5. dan s. says:

    “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.” –Noam Chomsky

    My first foray into Ogden politics was over a proposed trail that would have run from Beus Park up to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail–giving neighborhood pedestrians a safer alternative to risking their lives on 46th Street. This was in the summer of 1993, right after I moved to Ogden. The lots behind the park were being developed and the city’s plan called for preservation of an easement for the trail. But the Standard-Examiner ran an “our view” editorial claiming (as fact) that the trail would be 10 feet wide and open to horses and motorcycles–all absolutely false. The city council voted to kill the trail, overruling the unanimous recommendation of the planning commission.

    Somewhat later, the Standard ran a column by Congressman Jim Hansen’s chief of staff containing some outright lies about SUWA (e.g., that they wanted to ban bicycles from the Slickrock Trail and designate wilderness inside the town of Panguitch). When I submitted a letter to the editor pointing out the lies, the Standard removed the word “lies” from my letter. (At that time it was common practice on the editorial page to call Bill Clinton a liar, but forbidden to call Jim Hansen a liar.)

    On one occasion, the Standard-Examiner ran a letter to the editor asserting (as fact) that the Sierra Club is a fund-raising arm of Earth First!

    Want a more recent example? In its editorial endorsing Mayor Godfrey in 2007, the Standard-Examiner attacked his opponent, Susie Van Hooser, saying that her first vote on the city council had been to keep the files of city council applicants, including hers, secret. In fact, the vote had no effect on her own file–only those of other applicants (and the real blame for the vote rested on the city attorney who had told the council they had no choice). This falsehood was printed two days before the election, so Van Hooser had no opportunity to respond.

    The news section of the paper is more careful, as it should be. But it still engages in deception. For example, in all the dozens of articles about the Chris Peterson proposal for a resort in Malan’s Basin, the resort was described as “roadless”. But Peterson never said it would be roadless–he and Lift Ogden merely wanted us to think that, and fooled the Standard-Examiner by choosing their words carefully. I tried to point this out to Mr. Schwebke but he refused to listen. Now you can look up at the mountain and see the intended route of one of the roads.

    So when I see newspaper people complaining about false information on the internet, I always laugh. At least, on the internet, an article can actually be removed or corrected if the author wants to do so. (Nobody reads the corrections on page 2A in print newspapers.) At least, on a blog site, you can immediately post a comment to tell your side of the story, rather than having to submit a letter that may or may not be published a week later.

    What newspaper people are really complaining about, in all the examples I’ve seen, is that they are no longer the gatekeepers. Suddenly the tables are turned, and they can be treated the same way they’ve been treating the rest of us, ever since Gutenberg.

    This is definitely a good thing.

    But no matter what the medium, it’s always easier to tell a falsehood than to set the record straight.

  6. flatlander100 says:

    Dan:

    Most of the examples you give illustrate the chief [continuing] problem with the Standard Examiner’s reporting: it’s unwillingness to fact-check statements given it, particularly [though not exclusively] by elected officials and their spokespersons. That has changed but little so far as I can see, and as long as it does not change, the SE will end up continuing to print things that are not so [and can easily be shown to be not so], simply attributing them to the person being quoted and so [the paper's editors seem to believe] absolving the paper of any responsibility for printing things that are not so. It’s a pretty thin fig leaf they’re using to cover their failure to do their jobs properly.

    A few of your other examples, however, come from editorial statements. While I agree that a paper should strain every nerve to avoid publishing things not so, even in editorials, such are openly statements of the publisher’s [and sometimes the owner's] opinions. Lower standard there.

    As for letters to the editor: the SE [generally] does not edit them so far as I know. And that’s a good thing. A letter writer ought to make his or her own statement, un-massaged by editors.

    However, the SE also does not fact-check letters. Other papers I’ve dealt with do. Carefully. I’ve gotten calls on letters I’ve sent in from the letters editor saying they looked up a proposed statute I was ranting about, and it didn’t exactly say what I said it did [they read me the text involved] They asked if I would change my description to make the letter more accurately summarize the text? [They were right and I did.] They routinely fact-checked letters and would not run letters that were, in their view, factually incorrect. Their attitude was “you’re entitled to your own opinion about what the facts mean. You are not entitled to your own facts.” Nor would they change [edit] a letter without the writer’s prior consent. I thought their letters policy a good one. So there is another option to the “we didn’t say it, the letter writer did” policy the SE prefers.

    And you’re absolutely right about the MSM being worried about loss of their “gatekeeper” role. I think most recently of the op ed you submitted to the SE, which it refused to print which then ran on WCF. And even the SE has had to concede that material it refused to track down was indeed newsworthy, and it began coverage only after the story broke on a blog. [Again, the Godfrey Administration emails detailing attempts to keep the Council from learning it wanted to wash a grant through UTA to pay for a gondola study comes to mind. Became an SE story only after it appeared on WCF.]

    All that said, Mr. Trentelman still has a point that blogs can be, often are, filled with egregious trash that don’t comply with even the less-than-best-practice standards in place at the SE. The course of wisdom whenever anyone reads anything — in the SE, the NYT, WCF, the SL Trib, the Utah Republican Party Wing Nut Special & Black Helicopter Sentry — is still caveat emptor.

  7. ctrentelman says:

    As to Lance Stamper’s allegation — I was writing stories about the unit in Iraq based on what the family of the troop in the field told me. Sergeants Major and other people of rank have a tendency to put a good face on things — they have superiors to answer to, after all, and superiors don’t like dirty linen aired — while families of troops in the field answer only to their loved one.

    In this case, the family of a troop told me they didn’t have tp at his forward operating base and I was in no position to say they were lying. Why would they? They were spending major bucks mailing tp to Iraq.

    Remember, Don Rumsfeld said the army was in great shape. It took a guy in the field — a Utahn, if I am not mistaken — to ask why they were having to put “hillbilly armor” on their vehicles if things were so great.

    It was one of those situations where one has to choose who to believe. I chose those closest to the situation, and would do so again.

  8. Cathy says:

    I think it’s still libel if the lies are on the internet, not just print. That’s illegal, right?

  9. Charles Trentelman says:

    One would think, Cathy — of course, you have to show loss, and intent, and reckless disregard for the truth, especially if you are a public figure, which someone might argue a newspaper columnist is.

    But if you defame a private individual? Good question. I would refer you to the corporate attorney, but in general I assume the same rules apply here as in the print edition. If others choose not to assume that, that is their risk, in part, but also, I think, the risk of the host of the blog.

  10. flatlander100 says:

    Cathy:

    Is something that would be libelous if a newspaper printed it also libelous if appears on a blog? That’s only part of the question, seems to me. Presuming it is a libel and legally actionable, who is responsible for it if it appears on a blog, particularly a blog with an “open posting” policy [i.e. posts are not reviewed by the blogowner before posting]? The individual who posted it? The host of the blog on which the comment appeared? Both? And suppose the poster merely quotes a libel that appeared elsewhere. Is the poster liable? The original source who was quoted? The blog owner? All of them? Some of them? I don’t know and at this point, I’m not sure the courts do either.

    The internet and its relationship to libel laws [and others involving journalistic freedom ], is a matter still being resolved in the courts, in congress and in state legislatures. The whole area, generally, of “the law of the internet” is not clearly defined yet. For example, some states have shield laws protecting reporters from being forced to reveal sources in many circumstances. Well, is someone who “reports” on a blog the same as a “reporter” for a newspaper or radio station? If not, the shield laws don’t apply to him. And so on. This whole matter — law and the internet — is a really chewy one and I expect the courts will be actively wrestling with it for some time to come. The whole question of what “freedom of the press” and “freedom of speech” means in a world of blogs, twitters, text messaging and the rest is going to be really interesting to watch develop.

  11. tom says:

    Charlie

    You wrote above: “Before publication, her letter ran on the Standard’s web site. (click!) It quickly garnered more than 40 comments, none from people who signed their names, almost all accusing her of hating the Air Force.”

    Not true. I believe I wrote one of those 40 comments and I signed my name – Tom

  12. dan s. says:

    Flatlander,

    In response to your comparison of editorial standards at the SE vs. blogs, I’ll merely point out that newspapers also run the gamut from mostly factual to hardly ever. Just look at the Weekly World News.

  13. Cathy says:

    They had to iron out copyright issues in the early days of the internet, I’m guessing that it will be the same with defamation and libel.

    If you look at what’s going on with youtube, things are taken down all the time if someone claims there might be a legal case. Some things are put back up after being taken down too, as was the case of one animal rights group, whose videos were depicting cruelty to animals at rodeos. The rodeo association threatened to sue, and the videos were taken down — but it was eventually determined that the AR group was within their rights to film the rodeos, so all the clips were put back up (n.b., the rodeo association is now banning all cameras at their events). I’m not sure if the threatened legal action was based on copyright or defamation though.

  14. ctrentelman says:

    I am told that our attorney advises us that, under the blog comment terms of service, we are not the publisher of comments on our web site because we do not monitor or edit them. We do delete offensive ones (terms of service) but that’s it.

    So, libel someone on a blog chat, you are on your own. I do insist, however, that my blog posts follow standard journalistic rules, as do any comments I add in here.

    play nice, children, before someone gets hurt.

  15. flatlander100 says:

    Charlie:

    Thanks for passing on the advice of the SE atty. But if that becomes the standard — blog owners are not the “publishers” of what is posted on their sites, provided they don’t monitor [screen] or edit them, we get an odd result. It creates an incentive for blog operators [like the SE] NOT to screen comments. And it [potentially] penalizes a blog operator who, in the name of encouraging civil discussion on his blog, screens comments before allowing them to be posted. I’m not sure that works out well for the Republic overall..

    But all this — law of the internet — is still very much a legal work in progress. As I said, it’s going to be very interesting to watch how it all develops. And to watch what happens to concepts like “free speech” and “free press” in the internet age.

    We live in interesting times. Dammit.

  16. ben dover says:

    I am a frequent reader of the website you talk about. I try to take the comments posted there with a large degree of skepticism. The problem lies partially with the newspaper. For whatever reason the local paper has not done much real investigation or research on the current mayors claims. Many stories have begun on the forum and caused followup stories. I realize that the local paper is searching to stay relevant and does not want to drive away advertisers. The current level of frustration with city government is at a all time high. Many posters to the WCF are juvenile and should be dismissed, but much useful information can also br gained by following some of their comments and opinions. It would be nice to see the S-E hold the current administration to previous promises and plans for improvement. That being said I cannot envision a time without a local daily paper.

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