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When the Media Takes a Page From the Kathryn Bigelow Playbook

Guest blog: Best Picture nominees aren't the only ones playing fast and loose with the truth

 

“Best Picture” isn’t the only competition "Zero Dark Thirty" may lose this year. And while the Oscars were over in a mere 17 hours, the debate over the film’s central premise – that torture was the key to killing Osama bin Laden – will continue for months, if not years to come.

Unlike the historical inaccuracies of “Lincoln” which, at worst, have ruffled the feathers of states incorrectly portrayed as opposing the 13th amendment – the issue in “Zero Dark Thirty” is much more than accuracy for accuracy’s sake.

Some worry that, by crediting torture with the elimination of America’s No. 1 enemy, many Americans will be lured into supporting what we so euphemistically refer to  as “enhanced interrogation” or, at a minimum, more adept at turning a blind eye to how our country conducts itself in the theater of war.

I readily concede it’s a serious issue and one that deserves a long, hard look by all of us. But what I find so remarkable is that the controversy over how reality is portrayed in fiction so overshadows how reality is portrayed in reality by those who have no claim to artistic license.

During the week before the Oscars – while there was all the falderal over the torture scene in “Zero Dark Thirty” – two colossal mistakes occurred in the media that make Bigelow look like a compulsive accuracy freak.

The first — which deserves a nomination in the “Best Supporting Reporter” category —  concerned the controversial appointment of Chuck Hagel to Secretary of Defense… an appointment encountering a precedent-setting contest by the right.

Though a Republican himself, Hagel was attacked by GOP members, primarily on the grounds that he was hostile to Israel (a matter subject to interpretation) and that he had accepted fees from “entities hostile to America” (a matter that is not).

A dozen Senate Republicans had demanded, in writing, that Hagel respond to the second allegation. What some reporters wondered was whether Republicans had totally concocted the rumor and used their demand letter merely to give it some gravitas.

New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman was among the skeptical and was diligently tracking down GOP sources in Washington. He wanted to see if there was actually any foundation for their accusations against Hagel, or if they were just being used to prolong the confirmation process. 

As would any good reporter, Friedman pressed his sources if they had any evidence whatsoever. And this is where the plot thickens … as do a couple of heads in Washington.

Using that cocky humor so many reporters employ for putting sources enough at ease to give us a scoop, Friedman asked a GOP Senate staffer whether Hagel had spoken to two groups which Friedman had completely made up. He had named these fictional entities so ridiculously (“Friends of Hamas” and the “Junior League of Hezbollah”) he assumed anyone over 10 would know he was joking. Maybe … then again, maybe not, if that 10 year old is a Republican.

Imagine Friedman’s amazement to see the headline at Breitbart.com the next morning, “revealing” Hagel’s obviously evil “Friends of Hamas” connection! As he told David Freedlander at the Daily Beast, “It was a kind of holy shit moment!”

Friedman reasons that his source passed on his “Friends of Hamas” comment, not as the hypothetical it was but as the God’s honest truth some conservatives so wish it would be. Ben Shapiro, the Breitbart.com reporter who wrote the story has not only refused to offer the Daily Beast a comment, he’s apparently insisting that Friedman wasn’t even the source of the story.

It’s a fairly hard argument to make, since “Friends of Hamas” was a creature solely of Friedman’s imagination, warped or otherwise.

Shapiro claims that what gives his assertions “credence” is that, when he called for a reaction, the White House hung up on him. (Funny, I’d have the absolute opposite interpretation. The way I see it, it’s kind of like calling the White House and asking whether it’s true that the President wraps his head in aluminum foil, before sleeping.)

As such things are wont to do, the “Friends of Hamas” rumor burned through D.C. as if set ablaze by the torch of Lady Liberty. Before Friedman was able to extinguish it, Senate Republicans had already formally demanded that Hagel respond to the allegation. Every politician occasionally gets a little egg on his face. These guys were wearing an omelet.

But just when things were looking bad for the GOP’s powers of reasoning, the left jumped in to the rescue with a story at least equally ridiculous and, if you can believe it, even more unbelievable.

This one deserves nominations, I think: one in my newly created “Best Foreign Screw-Up” category and another for the more traditional “Best Supporting Actress” award. (I was about to change “actress” to “politician” – when, as you’ll understand in just two sentences – I realized the change would be wholly superfluous.)

Within days, blogger Suzi Parker (author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt”) had posted what would, indeed be a major news story … if only it were true, that is. According to Parker, Sarah Palin had accepted a job with Al Jazeera! Sarah Palin –  the moose-shooting soccer mom and Tea Party darling — would soon be appearing on the Arabic news and current affairs satellite TV channel. The GOP’s best-known female far-right conservative would be working for a channel whose name means the Arab peninsula.

Bu tt’s where Parker posts that gave her story even a whiff of credibility: on the website of the august and ever-so-serious Washington Post, no less.

How had Parker scored her scoop? She found it on a site called “The Daily Currant” – a site she apparently failed to realize takes the news only a tad more seriously than Mad magazine. 

Should Parker have known she was reading a spoof? I don’t know. What would you think if you came to a site with the following headlines gracing its front page: “Ann Coulter Refuses to Board Plane with Black Pilot” or “Rush Limbaugh Denied Service at Mexican Restaurant” or, my personal favorite: “George Bush Accidentally Votes for Obama”?

In Parker’s defense, assuming she deserves one, it’s not often that a blogger gets first bite of a story so big that every newspaper, radio and TV station in America would pick it up in a matter of hours. Perhaps she was so dizzy over snaring her exclusive that she just wasn’t able to see how obviously untrue it was. On the other hand, maybe she’s just dizzy.

The moral for the Washington Post and every site, for that matter, is always read your bloggers posts before you publish them. The moral for the rest of us is a bit more harrowing. It makes me wish there were a “Worst Picture” category. Because the picture these two bizarre snafus paint of the media and of our government isn’t a pretty one.

We’ve all known for ages that politics can be a very dirty business. But at least it was played by arguably smarter, more reasonable people … people who knew the difference between the possibly true rumor and something that could only come from the likes of a Sponge Bob Square Pants.

The media used to know the difference, too, and even more important, cared about being trustworthy and accurate. I know you may find that hard to believe, but I’m old enough to have experienced it and young enough to remember.

Does the inaccuracy of these two whoppers matter? Do blogs like Parker’s nibble away at the Washington Post’s credibility and leave readers wondering about the truth of other stories? Do stories like the “Friends of Hamas” rumor only worsen the discord between two parties … leave one angrily on the defensive … and, worst of all, linger as truth in the minds of enough people to do undeserved harm to Chuck Hagel?  

As Al Jazeera’s new star would answer: “You betcha!”