AJR  Columns
From AJR,   August/September 2009

Daydream Believers   

The persistence of myths underscores the need for relentless reporting.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

Chico Marx once famously asked, "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

America has become a country filled with people who stubbornly continue to believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts.

Take the so-called birthers, who refuse to accept that President Obama is an American citizen, despite ample evidence showing that he is.

Or those who embrace the notion that the health care legislation working its way through Congress would establish "death panels" that would "pull the plug on grandma," even though it clearly wouldn't.

It's the job of journalists to sort out such contretemps, to determine where the truth lies. But what do you do when a significant portion of the electorate ignores the findings?

"We do it for those who care," says Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org, which, as its name suggests, investigates such matters for a living. "We can't change human nature."

This has been Jackson's game for quite a while. He specialized in ad-watch and fact-checking stories for CNN starting with the 1992 presidential election. Before that he was an investigative reporter with the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. Washington-based FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, debuted in December 2003.

The outfit did a good job early on of disposing of the Obama citizenship issue. In August 2008, it reported in a piece titled "Born in the U.S.A.," "FactCheck.org staffers have now seen, touched, examined and photographed the original birth certificate. We conclude that it meets all of the requirements from the State Department for proving U.S. citizenship. Claims that the document lacks a raised seal or a signature are false." It also posted high-resolution photographs of the birth certificate on its Web site.

But, as you may have noticed, this hardly quelled debate over the issue. The birther movement, blinded by rage and unable to accept the notion that Barack Obama actually is president of the United States, continues to hammer away.

CNN's Lou Dobbs hardly has covered himself with glory on this one, devoting ample airtime to those who insist the president was born in Kenya while blithely assuring everyone that he personally accepts that Obama is a U.S. citizen. It got to the point that CNN President Jon Klein felt compelled to send Dobbs an e-mail stating the obvious: "This story is dead."

Speaking of dead, the death panels canard is another one that refuses to disappear, helped along by the antics of cynically manipulative politicians. Somehow, the notion of having Medicare pay for voluntary end-of-life counseling sessions has morphed in the minds of opponents of health care legislation into evil cabals killing the elderly. It is, as Jackson says, a "complete misrepresentation." He adds, "Hip replacements are covered by Medicare, but they aren't mandatory."

Of course, it's not as if the right has a monopoly on misinformation. While Obama has said repeatedly that health care reform will pay for itself, that isn't the case with versions of the bill drafted thus far. And Congress hasn't helped with what Jackson calls the "untransparent" approach it has taken to putting the legislation together.

The fact that not everyone accepts the findings of fact-check-style reporting hardly means the news media should throw up their hands and give up. If anything, it underscores the notion that they must be even more aggressive. While true believers may never be swayed, there are plenty of people who, as Jack Nicholson might say, can handle the truth.

To cut through the brush, it's critical that journalists go beyond the all-too-typical he-said, she-said reporting of the past and not hesitate to reach firmly expressed conclusions.

Of course, it's necessary to explore all sides of the story. Fairness is essential. But that doesn't mean giving equal weight to the true and factual and the manifestly false. Sure, in some controversies the dueling sides can both have much to back up their point of view. But the earth-is-flat crowd doesn't deserve 50-50 treatment.

Mainstream journalism has long been uncomfortable about taking that final step, fearing it comes too close to expressing an opinion or choosing sides. But as long as that conclusion is based on carefully reported evidence, not ideology, there's no good reason not to do it.

There has been progress on this score in recent years. The advent of FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com, an initiative of the St. Petersburg Times, has helped. No doubt spurred by their initially flatfooted response to the allegations of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 campaign, many mainstream news organizations did a better job of truth-squadding four years later.