When I teach my critical thinking class I make use of the infamous “Rathergate” incident of 2004. As some will recall, Dan Rather presented the Killian documents which were highly critical of Bush’s military service. Unfortunately for Dan Rather, the documents seemed to be lacking in authenticity. So, rather than adding another major news story to his record, Rather became the story and thus sustained a career ending injury.
The point I make when discussing this incident is that people, most especially those who claim to be purveyors of facts, need to be careful in confirming claims before accepting them (let alone broadcasting them). I also note that being critical is especially important when the claims are very appealing.
Now, fast forward to 2010. After hearing a bit of chatter about Obama’s $200 million a day trip, I decided to follow the anti-Obama chatter beasts to their usual lairs: Fox News and other conservative pundits (the liberal chatter beasts generally make their home at MSNBC). A little investigation (well, clicking links) “revealed” that Obama’s trip involved naval vessels, three thousand people, helicopters and more. However, the truly impressive graphics and burning outrage failed to reveal the source of this figure.
A little more investigation (clicking more links) revealed that the source for this figure was identified as an anonymous government official in India. Some actual fact checking on the size of the entourage and the like cost of the trip revealed that while such state travel is expensive, it is not $200 million per day.
On one hand, I am pleased that this occurred: my 2004 example was getting a bit stale and it will be nice to have this fresh example on hand of how folks in the media can take an unverified source of information and run far with it. However, I doubt that anyone at Fox or any of the other pundits will suffer from their actions.
On the other hand, I am dismayed at this sort of thing. While the pundits can be expected to believe (or at least seem to believe) any claim that matches their agenda (or what their audience craves to hear), they should be more critical. This is especially true of Fox. They claim to be a news agency and this creates an obligation on their part: they need to at least take some minimal effort to check the facts before presenting a story. Naturally, the audience should also engage in some critical assessment, but Fox’s core audience seems to be no more critical than Fox itself-at least when it comes to what matches their belief system. In this case, such folks want to believe Obama is wasting their money and hence they accept such reports without even pausing to wonder about the veracity of such claims.
Interestingly, the facts seem to have little actual impact in such matters. Folks on the left and right seem to believe what they want to believe (that is, whatever matches their belief system) regardless of the actual truth of the matter. Such folks seem to feel more than assess and when they are critical it is generally only in regards to what they disagree with. The pundits and “news” feed and feed on these qualities, making America more irrational and polarized place.
MSNBC is, ironically, trying to fight Fox and the conservative pundits by being more like them. This is, of course, a bad idea. First, MSNBC is simply not up to matching its competition in this area (even with Olbermann back from his suspension). Second, the way to counter such “news” is by engaging in correct reporting techniques: that is, objective investigation and critical assessment. Unfortunately, there is probably not much in the way of ratings in such an approach.