Friday, November 14, 2008

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Remember that “news” reporting about a McCain policy adviser who leaked that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country—not a continent?

Remember how it fed into our beliefs about her lack of Palin’s intellectual heft, reinforced by the way she sounded in media soundbites more like Frances McDormand from Fargo than a traditional politician?

Psychologists call this the “confirmation bias.” It’s a fundamental human tendency to interpret new information so as to confirm one’s existing beliefs—and to discount data that contradict these beliefs. Whether we know what it’s called, we all do it.

Thankfully, we have the impartial, unprejudiced, fact-checking media to keep us as close to objectivity as possible, right??


It turns out that the Africa story—and several other comments and observations from this McCain adviser—were, well … made up.

Yup. News outlets from MSNBC to The New Republic, from The Los Angeles Times to Fox News, fell prey to a simple scam whereby nonexistent McCain adviser "Martin Eisenstadt" offered up juicy tidbits, and reporters bit right in.

The race to be the first to a “story” crushed what was left of journalistic integrity.

Passing on rumor and hearsay as truth—especially when it fits into one’s preexisting notions—is one of the things that pisses me off most about political bloggers. And this story shows mainstream media isn’t immune.

If there’s anything we can learn from this case, it’s this: Think twice before passing on what you hear as “the truth.”

And if by some chance this whole “it’s a hoax” thing turns out, in turn, to be another hoax, let’s all give up and move away.

Let’s go to Africa. I hear it’s a nice country.


At November 14, 2008 4:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous replied to my musings ...

Interesting. It was actually FOX News that broke this story - they said they'd been sitting on it because it was "put off the record."


At November 14, 2008 6:47 PM, Blogger Perplexio replied to my musings ...

I read about the hoax yesterday and was similarly annoyed by the news media's zeal to report a story with such shoddy research to back up and substantiate the story.

I'd say its the worst lapse in journalistic integrity since Dan Rather's 60 Minutes story in 2004 that turned out to be, much like this-- a hoax.

At November 14, 2008 9:36 PM, Blogger BeckEye replied to my musings ...

Wait, so there were lies and deceptions and just general bullshittery going on during the presidential campaign? Who'dathunkit.

At November 15, 2008 8:00 AM, Blogger David Amulet replied to my musings ...

Archphoenix: Because several news outlets fell for different stories from this "adviser," I'll point my finger at them all.

Perplexio: I'll put it up there with Blair's made-up sources at the New York Times.

Beckeye: Imagine that. We have expected that from the candidates; now we have to expect it from the media.

At November 15, 2008 9:49 AM, Blogger Perplexio replied to my musings ...

Incidentally, I've heard this "source" for the Sarah Palin Africa remarks was the same source that claimed that Joe the Plumber was the son or grandson of one of the Keating 5.

At November 15, 2008 12:03 PM, Blogger Dr. John replied to my musings ...

Agree with her politics or not, why do so many people have it in for this woman? She seems genuinely nice (at least in front of the camera). If anyone tried this on our President Elect, imagine the howls of protest...

At November 15, 2008 12:03 PM, Blogger The Phoenix replied to my musings ...

Bias in the media was so obvious this election. Even when it was Obama vs Clinton.

At November 15, 2008 6:48 PM, Blogger cube replied to my musings ...

It wouldn't have been as newsworthy had Palin been a democrat. This election proved once and for all that the media has a significant liberal bias.

At November 16, 2008 4:24 PM, Blogger The Mad Hatter replied to my musings ...

Oh yeah, well, the entire media is a hoax. In fact, Africa is a hoax. I'd like to see the fact-checking on that one. What, do they think that I'm supposed to just believe there's this monstrous land mass? if they don't have Starbucks, it doesn't exist. Also, if North Korea and South Korea don't recognize each other as countries, do they both not exist by mutual cancellation? Again, hoaxes all over. Is Frederick Juniper really my name? Again, hoax. A recent poll in the U.S. revealed that 98% of Americans believe that they voted in a Presidential election. Let's see how that one pans out.

At November 17, 2008 12:54 AM, Blogger Phats replied to my musings ...

Hmm I think i'll keep my mouth shut, my mother always taught me if you can't say something nice about someone don't say anything at all.

At November 17, 2008 12:43 PM, Blogger Malcolm replied to my musings ...

You made a good point about networks putting the race to be first with a story before journalistic integrity. I do find it interesting how some have commented that the treatment of Sarah Palin proves the media's liberal bias. Sorry, but if a story broke that Barack Obama didn't know basic geography, the media would be all over it.

At November 17, 2008 4:06 PM, Blogger BuffyICS replied to my musings ...

Actually the source for the Africa thing was not the prankster--part of their hoax was taking credit for the Africa story. Cameron's source was not actually Eisenstadt. So the Africa-as-country came from a real, actual source from the McCain campaign. It's totally confusing, but here is a good summary:

And some other sources to confirm:

At November 17, 2008 5:33 PM, Blogger David Amulet replied to my musings ...

Perplexio: That's what the NYT article I linked to implies.

Dr. John: Agreed. Double standards exist all over the place!

Phoenix: All sources are biased; there's no real way around it that I've figured out. It's the sources that refuse to admit that they are biased that annoy me.

Cube: See above.

At November 17, 2008 5:38 PM, Blogger David Amulet replied to my musings ...

MH: This comment is a hoax, too.

Phats: That's one way to approach it. But it misses the point I'm making about sloppy reporting.

Malcolm: I disagree--I think the mainstream media will do more fact-checking on some people than others based on reporters' and editors' preconceptions. But this is very hard to test!

Buffy: Welcome back, it's been a while! I'm confused. One of your sources supposedly saying that the Africa thing didn't come from this fake adviser is the very New York Times article I linked to saying that it WAS this fake adviser. So the NYT got it wrong? Either way, the point stands: On many issues, the race to be first trumps good reporting--and our bias of seeing what we want to see contributes to it.

At November 17, 2008 10:25 PM, Blogger BuffyICS replied to my musings ...

You're absolutely right about that. And I think news bloggers have a tendency to be particularly vulnerable to these types of hoaxes. It's one of the reasons I hope newspapers can survive in their online incarnations--you gotta have print sources that you can generally trust.

I think I read the NYT story differently--it's hard to keep that whole story straight. But you're right that regardless of whether the hoaxter was the source or was not the source, you can't believe everything you read.

At November 18, 2008 1:16 AM, Blogger Phats replied to my musings ...

Oh i was talking about what I would like to say about Sarah Palin HAHAHA.

Saw Duke survived Rhode Island, we need you guys undefeated when you come to Mackey!

At November 18, 2008 9:03 AM, Anonymous LisaBinDaCity replied to my musings ...

Save me a seat on the plane, eh?

At November 26, 2008 7:49 PM, Blogger dmarks replied to my musings ...

I miss the rains down in Africa.


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