Politics & Policy

Bad Times

The rise, and occasional fall, of media hysteria.

The front page of the New York Times has increasingly become the home of editorials disguised as “news” stories. Too often it has become the home of hoaxes.

Going back some years, it was the Tawana Brawley hoax that she had been gang-raped by a bunch of white men. Just a couple of years ago, it was the Duke University “rape” hoax that they fell for.

In between there were the various hoaxes of New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who was kept on and promoted until too many people found out what he had been doing and the paper had to let him go.

Last month the New York Times created its own hoax with a long front-page article about how war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were killing people back in the United States because of the stress they had gone through in combat.

That hoax was shot down two days later by the New York Post, which showed that the murder rate among returning war veterans was only one fifth the murder rate among civilians in the same age brackets.

Undaunted, the New York Times has come up with its latest front-page sensation, the claim that some anonymous people either suspected an affair between Senator John McCain and a female lobbyist or tried to forestall an affair.

But apparently no one actually claimed that they knew there was an affair.

This did not even rise to the level of “he said, she said.” Instead it was anonymous sources reporting their suspicions.

People who share the New York Times’s political views are treated as “innocent until proven guilty.” People with different views are condemned for “the appearance of impropriety,” even if there is no hard evidence that they did anything wrong.

In this latest “news” story about Senator McCain, the standard seems to be that anonymous sources suspected him of “the appearance of impropriety.”

Nothing is easier than to have suspicions. In my younger years, I was suspected of having an affair with more than one attractive woman when — alas — there was nothing happening.

At the time, however, I felt flattered by the insinuations.

In 1976, when President Ford nominated me to the Federal Trade Commission, someone anonymously told an FBI investigator that I was a Communist.

Not even the people opposed to my nomination believed it and it was not reported in the New York Times.

This was back in the days when the Times still had a reputation for integrity, before the Jayson Blair hoaxes, the gang-rape hoaxes, and the general prostitution of the front page to politics masquerading as news.

Over the years, the New York Times has increasingly discredited itself.

Not only have critics repeatedly exposed their tendentious use of their “news” stories, even the Times’s own “public editor” or ombudsman has now said that they should not have run the McCain insinuation story.

The declining credibility of the New York Times and of other tendentious media is, in one sense, a healthy thing. There has been too much public gullibility that has been cynically exploited by both the media and politicians.

In another sense, however, it is a sad day for the country as a whole that there are shrinking sources of reliable news and informed and honest commentary.

Hysteria has become the norm for too many once-serious publications, whether it has been hysteria for the purpose of hyping circulation or to advance some political agenda.

The rise of alternative media — notably talk radio — has limited how much the mainstream media can get away with.

Dan Rather’s fake memo about President Bush’s National Guard service might have gone unchallenged, and affected an election, back in the old days when the media consisted largely of like-minded colleagues who would not embarrass one of their own.

Bloggers and talk radio shot that one down. But it is doubtful if we have seen the last of the journalistic hoaxes. Not in an election year.

© 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

Thomas SowellThomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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