2010-05-20 / Sam Bari

Truth in journalism – then came the Internet

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

As difficult as it may be to believe, when people read a newspaper, they can feel reasonably confident that the articles they are reading are at least close to true.

Professional journalists have been verifying and referencing the information they commit to print for centuries. Many editors have managed to stay employed because of their reputations for ripping up copy from reporters who did not attribute reliable sources for their facts.

Important information usually begins with “According to,” or “So-and-so said,” or “An anonymous official,” said that something “allegedly” happened. The idea is to make sure that nobody from the publication is held responsible for the accuracy of the information. The reporter must provide the source.

When people know their name is going to be in the paper, they are hesitant to lie. They are aware that they will be held accountable if their story is proven to be less than credible.

When the media discovers a blatant inaccuracy, particularly from a high-profile civil servant, they are merciless in their retribution. Many a politician has suffered a quick and painful loss of favor with constituents for tainting the truth even slightly.

Most often, it is impossible to completely recover from committing transgressions of this nature. High-profile people who develop reputations for lying to the media are usually out of the spotlight in short order.

Because of this practice, stories like the “Watergate” scandal of the Nixon era are famous to this day. The Washington Post took enormous risks by allowing the reporting team of Woodward and Bernstein to develop a story – from one anonymous source – that accused the White House of indiscretions.

The Post’s faith in its reporters resulted in the resignation of an American president. If their handling of the story proved inaccurate, the demise of the paper would have been the outcome.

Back in the days when radio, and later television, expanded the media, the practice of verifying sources of information continued. This kept the industry honest for decades.

Then, in the early 1990s, when personal computers became widely used and browsers were introduced to the Internet, an unregulated global communications frontier was created.

A perfect opportunity to shrink the world and develop networks that can verify or discredit mainstream media became an instant reality. To this day, anyone with a computer can tap resources around the globe that were never before available.

Unregulated, free global communication caused an overnight frenzy. People wanted to get in on the ground floor. Unfortunately, as much corruption as good resulted from this new frontier in communications.

Scam artists, smut peddlers and pranksters seeking their 15 minutes of fame turned the Internet into a virtual wild west. Because it is an unregulated global phenomenon, the nefarious villains of cyberspace operate with impunity.

Legislation was eventually passed to control some of the criminal activity. However, there was so much latitude in the freedoms that the World Wide Web represented that to this day, anything that isn’t a blatant infraction of an existing ordinance cannot be challenged.

For instance, it is not against the law to give opinions and spread false rumors on the Internet. Political groups use it all the time to discredit and cause doubt about their opponents. And people believe so many of the deceptive messages that they doubt the mainstream media – especially newspapers.

An example of this is the many rumors that questioned the legalities of President Obama’s birth certificate. They were exacerbated on the Internet. Even though Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of the Hawaii State Department of Health, produced and verified his birth certificate – and identified the doctor who delivered him – that wasn’t enough. The Internet rumors continued.

She even produced records from Kapi’olani Medical Center for Women & Children, the hospital where he was born. She also produced records from both the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin, two Hawaiian newspapers that announced and documented his birth. Yet the rumors still flourish on the Internet. People swear by them.

Research reveals that the USA employs upwards of 100,000 people in its intelligence community for national security. They recently identified an unknown terrorist who attempted to explode a bomb in Time Square in New York City.

They had him in custody within 57 hours after the incident.

Does anybody really think that they are unqualified to check on the qualifications of the president of the country before he is sworn into office?

Those who don’t believe that deserve to live in a system they can’t understand.

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