Maine and U.S. right-wing press must earn respect

Journalists need to get it right

For decades conservatives have complained about the mainstream media, seeing them as too liberal.

Scholarly research shows that a good part of that perception stems from people on the right looking toward the center, thus craning their necks to the left. The same sort of thing also affects how people on the left see the press.

Yet the traditional media do have particular tendencies, such as focusing on dramatic tales over in-depth policy discussions. And on social issues, there is a tendency for the media to emphasize liberal positions. However, the media is quite even-handed to at least slightly conservative on economic issues and foreign policy.

But movement conservatives have been quite unhappy with the traditional media and have developed their own media outlets.

Now the Maine and U.S. conservative press needs to earn respect

At a minimum, this means they should have an unwavering commitment to a basic principle of journalism: Get it right.

This is what it means to get it right:

  1. Don’t publish unless your information is correct.
  2. Use more than one credible source to tie down the facts.
  3. And if you make an error, correct it quickly and completely and without defensiveness.

In the last week, there have been two striking examples of not getting it right.

The “Friends of Hamas” story

Nationally, the website Breitbart.com has come under withering criticism for their story by Ben Shapiro claiming that Chuck Hagel, the president’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, had involvement with a group called Friends of Hamas.

Thinly sourced, after its publication, the story spread far and wide.

Then it turned out that, not only does no such group exist, but the story was based on a joke.

As reporter Dan Friedman explained:

When rumors swirled that Hagel received speaking fees from controversial organizations, I attempted to check them out.

On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel’s Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed?

Hagel was in hot water for alleged hostility to Israel. So, I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France”? And: What about “Friends of Hamas”?

The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.

A media outlet that wanted to be taken seriously would instantly retract something like this once it was proven false.

Instead, as Alex Koppleman explains, “Shapiro and Breitbart.com are refusing to admit that Shapiro made a serious mistake, and attacking anyone who suggests otherwise.

The Maine Wire’s “Orweillian story”

Meanwhile, in Maine, the on-line newsletter of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, got another story wrong.

The group had just lost its lawsuit against the Maine Municipal Association (MMA). The MHPC’s lawsuit claimed that some citizens’ free speech rights were undermined by the MMA’s campaign activities.

In describing its loss, the reporter suggested that the judge had said the MMA was “Orweillian.” The story’s headline and an accompanying picture furthered that claim.

However, it’s quite clear that this was inaccurate.

Here’s the part of the judge’s decision using the word “Orwellian.”

There is also a certain Orwellian aspect to the vision of government sponsored speech drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens and in so doing assuring the continued sustenance and primacy of government itself. See GEORGE ORWELL, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1949). But here the Plaintiffs have not made the case, if it could be made, that government speech so dominated the debate that the views of others, including the Plaintiffs, were eclipsed.

Note how the argument is structured. It says that the vision presented by the MHPC is one where the government drowns out “the voices of ordinary citizens” and keeps itself in control, but those bringing the case didn’t show this happened.

So, no, the judge didn’t say the MMA was “Orweillian.” It said that the MHPC said MMA was “Orwellian,” but the MHPC didn’t come close to establishing that was true.

In fact, the judge says this is a major reason MHPC lost its lawsuit: MHPC didn’t offer proof for one of its central claims.

To date, there has been no correction by the Maine Wire.

A strong, competent conservative press would be good to have.

Mainstream journalists don’t always get it right. But they do have built-in safeguards which, if they fail at first, tend to kick in so they can offer corrections.

To provide a check on the mainstream press, which might overlook certain stories or cover them with a certain ideological lens, it would be worthwhile to have a strong, competent conservative press.

Not getting it right undermines these outlets’ credibility.

Using charged language and publishing exciting but incorrect information probably works to keep other movement conservatives engaged and fired up.

But it doesn’t enable these groups to persuade others or to be effective checks on politicians and the traditional media — not if they don’t show respect for the fundamental press principle: get it right.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives.