Faking News

If anyone ever wondered why so few people trust the “mainstream” media, today’s stories about two bills that passed yesterday in the House of Delegates and state Senate are clear evidence.

Now, as someone who has been doing political media work for nearly 20 years, let me first say that there are still good reporters out there trying to be accurate.  Not all reporters are so blatantly biased that they manipulate stories, and even some who have bias do an admirable job of trying to be fair.  But the decline in accuracy, the inability to even begin to hide bias, the have-to-get-this-online immediately syndrome, and quite frankly, the rise of a generation of reports who have no concern about being subjective and inaccurate has ruined media credibility and if not corrected is going to have devastating consequences for our nation.  Fake news is just the beginning.

Back to today’s news stories (some of which first appeared online last night, leaving no time for any reporter to verify claims made). 

In a story delivered by the Associated Press to multiple news outlets concerning the passage of a House bill that would redirect money away from Planned Parenthood, several false claims were made and printed as if true.  The first claim, that abortion makes up only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s business, has been repeatedly proven false and misleading, even by the media’s own “fact-checkers.”  The statement is not attributed to anyone in particular in the story, so where did the “reporter” (I’ll explain why that’s in quotes shortly) get the information?  Was it her own bias?  Did someone with Planned Parenthood or some other abortion-defending group tell her?  It’s in the paragraph that prefaces other claims with “according to the organization.” Does that apply to the 3 percent claim?  Who exactly should be held accountable for the falsehood?

Another false claim in the article states, “Without the funding, the organization says it would have to shut its five clinics in the state.”  The reality is that most of the money Planned Parenthood receives is from Medicaid, which this bill doesn't address, and the amount of taxpayer dollars that would be affected by this bill is relatively small.  Small enough that it would have no bearing on whether or not a facility would close. 

Late this afternoon, a correction on the second claim was posted on the story on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website, stating, “An earlier version of this story reported erroneously that losing funding would force the group to close its five clinics in the state. Planned Parenthood officials said defunding would ‘significantly undermine our ability’ to provide services at the clinics, but they did not say the facilities would close.”  Frankly, the correction is just as false as the original statement, but it’s at least moving in the direction of accuracy.

Here’s the interesting part, the “reporter” on the story is, in fact, a student at VCU and not a professional journalist.  Because news outlets are bleeding money and most veteran reporters in Richmond have been kicked to the curb or left for other jobs, some media outlets are relying on something called the Capital News Service, which is primarily staffed by college kids!  So, the Associated Press story was not actually written by someone with the AP, but by a college student.

Now, I’m all for “real life” experience for college kids.  Heaven knows many could use some.  But relying on a college student for actual news reporting is far removed from the days when they would research and verify facts for a story, not have the actual byline!  Regardless, an editor somewhere along the way should have known about the 3 percent falsehood.  It’s easily found with a simple Google search.  Clearly, no one cared if the story was accurate, just that it went online quickly and, I dare say, fit the narrative that Planned Parenthood must be saved at all cost.

A second story came from the Richmond Times-Dispatch regarding a religious liberty bill that passed the state Senate.  It quoted the Senate Democrat caucus this way: “The Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus issued a news release saying the bill would allow state employees to refuse marriage licenses to people based on religious beliefs.”

Except that statement is patently false.  The bill clearly defines to whom it would apply and “state employees” are nowhere to be found.  It’s very limited to those associated with religious organizations in the performance of duties associated with the organization.  Again, the story popped up online and my guess is the reporter had no time to verify the claim, which was since deleted from the online version of the story.  This afternoon, after the reporter was made aware of the erroneous claim, the Senate Democrat caucus issued a correction saying, “Yesterday's press release incorrectly stated that Senator Carrico's SB 1324 would allow state employees to refuse to issue marriage licenses on account of their sincerely held religious beliefs. That was not the intention of the bill. We apologize for the staff error and commit to further quality controls in order to make sure this does not happen again.”

Intention?  No, it’s the actual language of the bill, but here’s to “quality controls” to make sure facts are used.  Perhaps the editors at the Associated Press and RTD should think about some “quality controls” as well.

Of course, online corrections to these stories is simply too late.  How many people go back and read a story again to find the corrections hidden at the bottom?  My guess is you won’t see these false claims challenged in any meaningful way on any media website or in print.  Anchors or reporters on newscasts (like here) who may have quoted the falsehoods won’t likely begin tonight’s newscasts with an apology (rarely do you see that happen) or correction.  The fact is the narratives for these stories were affirmed and people were fed falsehoods that they will continue to believe because “it was in the news.”

I repeat, some of these errors can be attributed to reporters not having time to verify claims in the age of news is now.  But still, these falsehoods are suspect on their face and a simple reading of the legislation will show them to be false.  Clearly, a reporter should have time while sitting waiting for votes to be cast to actually read the bills?  An editor should be aware that fact-checkers have found statements to be false or misleading.  Some of it may be shear laziness.

But a lot of it is biased.  Too many reporters believe what confirms their bias.  How do we know?  Last night, when talking with reporters about the Planned Parenthood bill, we challenged the false claims, because the "AP" story was already online.  And we were ignored.  To me, that’s proof they weren’t interested in truth, but in telling their version of reality, which just happens to align with Planned Parenthood’s. 

And that’s why people are just as willing to believe “fake news” as they are what they are being fed by the “mainstream” media.