My colleague Paul Niwa offered this interesting observation today: The media can no longer stand on the sidelines in high-minded silence when a firestorm of spin, packaged as news, races across the blogosphere.
The rules of journalism, in other words, have changed. And there is no going back.
Niwa made this observation in the context of the Shirley Sherrod story. Several major news outlets, he noted, chose to simply ignore Andrew Breithart, the right-wing propagandist at BigGovernment.com, when he released a video clip carefully edited to make it appear as if Sherrod had made racially charged remarks when she spoke in March to an N.A.A.C.P. chapter.
But in a world in which the public needs reporters more than ever to sort fact from fiction, silence becomes its own form of complicity. That’s why I now believe that The Washington Post was right during the presidential campaign to publish a front-page story about incessant (and false) rumors that Barack Obama was a closet Muslim.
At the time I cheered critics, some of whom posted commentary calling The Post story a contender for the worst piece of political reporting on the campaign trail. Certainly the piece could have been cast less opaquely. But silence in this case would not have been golden.
The traditional media can’t leave the task of debunking myth to specialty sites such as FactCheck.org any more, even though investigating fabrication doesn’t come all that naturally to serious journalists. They’d rather spend their limited time investigating real news rather than debunking tall tales.
But the sordid story of Sherrod’s dismissal, without any serious investigation by the administration into the veracity of the charges made against her, suggests media cannot simply ignore what they suspect or know to be untrue. They need to expose the lie or fabrication — and embarrass those who spread it.