There’s a familiar axiom, endlessly reworded and separately attributed to nearly a dozen writers and thinkers, that goes something like this:
“Falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia while the truth is still pulling her boots on.”
That the authorship of the quote is so thoroughly disputed would seem to lend some credence to its message. And that’s exactly what we’re here to talk about today: the times in our recent history when fantastic claims or flat-out misinformation spread like wildfire. And in too many cases, the retractions weren’t distributed nearly as widely as the original message.
Nevertheless, each successive example of journalistic failure teaches the public to be more healthily skeptical of the news as it reaches them over the airwaves. So maybe some good can come of this after all.
The SCOTUS Obamacare Ruling
It can be tempting to think there is a wide gulf between mainstream news outlets like CNN and Fox, but occasionally a story breaks that proves they’re both drinking from the same poisoned well.
In 2012, both CNN and Fox betrayed their editors’ rather poor reading comprehension when they failed to correctly interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act’s (Obamacare’s) individual health insurance mandate. They both reported that SCOTUS had struck down the mandate, thereby dealing the ACA a potentially crippling blow.
Except they were wrong. In fact, they couldn’t have been more wrong if they tried. The truth is that SCOTUS upheld every one of the controversial components of the healthcare law. It became the year’s biggest media retraction.
Michael Sata’s Death: Greatly Exaggerated
Back in 2014, Newsweek committed what might be considered the height of journalistic snafus when they reported that Michael Sata, President of Zambia, had died. They cited his “mysterious” absence from a United Nations assembly.
The trouble is that Sata was still very much alive. He said as much when he showed up and addressed the parliament in Lusaka rather matter-of-factly: “I am not dead.”
Like something out of a Twain novel, Sata caught his own mourners in the act. Final plot twist? He died one month after the story broke.
The Hillary Clinton “Criminal Investigation”
Look: There are plenty of legitimate reasons to worry about a Clinton Presidency. For starters, she appears willing to tread water in the “moderate” end of the pool without seriously considering the sweeping changes America desperately needs. But I digress.
Like any other political figure, Clinton has proved to be a lightning rod for misinformation. Take, for example, the cover story published by the once-venerable New York Times about the purported “criminal investigation” into Clinton’s use of a private email server by the Department of Justice. Many other news outlets including The Atlantic considered it one of the most egregious lapses in journalistic integrity in recent memory.
Again: While it’s true that Clinton is (rightly) the subject of several investigations into the content of the emails stored on her private server, she is not, and has never been, the subject of a criminal investigation.
Rotten Apples in China
Including Apple, Inc. in a list of retractions about “political figures” might seem like a stretch, but if recent news has taught us anything, it’s that Apple and the rest of the giants of Silicon Valley are very much political animals at heart.
Back in 2012, Ira Glass, of This American Life, aired an installment of his famous podcast in which he interviewed Mike Daisey. Daisey claimed to have visited Apple factories in China and witnessed underage workers, rampant poisonous chemicals, and a variety of other crimes against humanity. The trouble is that most of his story was an outright fabrication.
In a later retraction and apology, Ira Glass confirmed that: “The most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.” It was a heavy blow for both Glass, This American Life, and NPR. It’s not every day that one of the “most downloaded pieces of journalism” turns out to be a flat-out lie.
Kim Jong Un: Sexiest Man Alive?
We’ll close our list with a glorious example of what it looks like when irony is piled atop irony.
As you probably know, The Onion is a celebrated source of satirical not-quite news. At least, it used to be, before Hillary Clinton’s top financial supporter bought it and immediately began publishing propaganda. But, once again, I digress.
Our example concerns a 2012 story in which The Onion laughingly crowned North Korea’s Kim Jong Un the “Sexiest Man Alive.” But it gets even better. China’s People’s Daily (remember: China’s totalitarian government controls virtually all of the country’s media) reported the news as legitimate. So did South Korea’s Korean Times.
An American satirical news outlet successfully dupes a government-controlled news outlet into believing that the egomaniacal Kim Jong Un is the sexiest man on the planet. Honestly, it doesn’t get any better than that.
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