By Forrest Carr, RTDNA Contributor
A friend of mine living in a neighboring state sent me a link to a posting on one of his town’s small-market TV stations. The headline screamed, “BEING REQUIRED BY LAW TO ATTEND CHURCH?!” The copy proceeded to say, “An Arizona state senator proposes a ‘moral rebirth’ for America.” The post invited readers to “Catch our complete coverage” and then added, “Do you think that the government should dictate your church attendance?” The posting thoughtfully included a very nice shot of the inside of a church or cathedral.
There’s only one problem with this post, and with the “local reaction” story that it promoted: both are based on a falsehood. There is no bill in Arizona that would force anyone to go to church. There is no legislator in Arizona who has seriously proposed such a bill or plans to do so. There is no legislator in Arizona who states that he or she wants such a bill.
Perhaps you’ve heard of this story. It would be surprising if you haven’t; the news spread like wildfire from coast to coast. This headline in a major New York tabloid was entirely typical: “Arizona lawmaker wants church attendance to be mandatory.” The first line of the story repeated the claim. The claim is false.
I have omitted the names of the news organizations referenced above because it’s not my intent to embarrass any single entity. Rather, it’s my intent to embarrass all of them collectively. What happened in this case tells a sad tale about what’s happening to journalism in our great nation. Call it the Twitterization of the news.
This incident began with a single tweet about a Republican in the Arizona state senate, sent out by a Democratic adversary. The tweet read as follows: “Sen Sylvia Allen just declared in Approps that she wants a law to require all Americans to attend church on Sundays.” That is all it took. The story hit the airwaves and websites in Phoenix and spread from there. The headlines were all similar to the ones I quoted above, stating that the legislator in question “wants” church to be mandatory. The Democrat who sent out the initial tweet followed with a second one saying, “Sen. Sylvia Allen calls for law requiring Sunday church attendance.” That tweet included a very brief You Tube clip of her remarks in a senate committee hearing. Here is her smoking gun line: “Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday, to see if we can get back to having a mo—” The clip ended there, cutting her off in mid-sentence.
She said that? Yes. You mean this legislator seriously wants to throw Americans in jail who sleep late on Sunday? That last question is a good one. Would you like the answer? Good. But I regret to inform you that you could not get it from the news coverage that immediately resulted. No one—and I mean absolutely no one—stopped to ask that question before publishing those screaming headlines claiming that Allen wants to do that.
Upon further investigation what you find is that in the very next line of her senate statement, which was not included in that video clip, she specifically disavows any such bill. Later she would say she wasn’t serious. By the end of last week, that explanation had made it into exactly one story that I’d been able to find (although some stories over the weekend, five days after the story initially broke, began to include it—which in no way impeded those reporters’ rush to attack her alleged “proposal.”)
My first reaction upon hearing the uploaded comments was that surely, she can’t mean what it sounds like she’s implying, because that would be nuts. The church comment struck me as a flippant or satirical attempt to make a rhetorical point. The next logical step before writing a story about what she “wants” would be to ask her, oh, I don’t know, what she actually wants. As in: “Were you serious? Do you really want to make church attendance mandatory? If so, are you calling for a law to do that as your Democratic adversary is suggesting? What are you planning to do to advance that agenda? By the way, have you heard of the U.S. Constitution?”
Almost no one asked those questions. Before social media caused journalists to lose their minds, such follow-ups might have been considered prudent. Back in the day, if a politician wanted to smear an opponent, he or she would call a reporter and pitch the story. The reporter or an editor would then make made the judgment call about whether the tip was newsworthy. Twitter and social media posters bypass the editorial process. Now, instead of deciding whether a story will get published, the reporters have to decide whether to jump on the bandwagon.
A close examination of what the media are reporting about that tweet explains how it immediately rocketed into the headlines. Almost every story treated it as if it were gospel. This line from one Phoenix TV report was typical. “Her initial comments spread across social media.” To make sure we understood what the reporter meant, he included a shot of that Democratic adversary’s tweet.
The problem with that reporter’s statement, and all the others like it, is that it’s false. The tweet contained no quotation marks. Allen’s comments were not spreading across social media; her opponent’s characterization of them was. And that characterization was wrong. Allen never said she wanted a law to make church mandatory. And as one Arizona Republic columnist later pointed out, she never “called” for such a law, a word that has a specific meaning in a legislative context. You won’t find this in any of the stories, but subsequently Allen posted on her Facebook page, “Sadly, once again the public is being purposely misled. I have no bill about church attendance. I said this in a flippant way during a very long committee meeting....”
To be sure, Sen. Allen did not make it easy for reporters to get her side of the story. She turned her back on journalists who tried to ambush her (one snarkily reported that she had “walked away from her comments, literally” which was not true; she stated at the time that she was walking away from the reporter, and then she proceeded to defend her comments in a second Senate speech). Allen ignored media emails and phone calls (including those from your humble correspondent). But she didn’t make it impossible for reporters to get her side of the story; see the aforementioned Facebook posting, which did not make it into any of the reports I have read on this issue.
Add it all up, and what do you get? Any Americans who uncritically accepted the headlines about this story now believe something that is not true, that there’s a movement afoot in Arizona to make church mandatory.
There are some lessons here if anyone cares to take them.
One: A tweet is no more credible than any other kind of public allegation. It should be checked, not taken as gospel. The fact that the story is “already out there” is not an excuse to avoid verifying the facts.
Two: The fact that a newsmaker is avoiding reporters does not relieve those reporters of the obligation to be fair or to continue to do their best to get the newsmaker’s side of the story.
For newsmakers: As tempting as it is, stiffing the media usually is not the best choice, not for the official, and not for democracy. Note that an unchallenged falsehood quickly becomes the publicly accepted truth.
For news consumers: If you see that an entire story is built around a single Tweet or social media posting, proceed with care. For that story at least, the journalism values you’ve come to expect may have been Twitterized.
Forrest Carr is a former TV news director who writes novels, does talk radio, and blogs. You can find his musings on The Bashful Bloviator.