Sunday, August 06, 2006

Reutergate: the blogosphere fact-checks your ass; what do you fact-check?

Kate of Small Dead Animals has given the story the perfect name: Reutergate.

Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs (he of "Rathergate" and the superimposed forged memos fame) has caught Reuters red-handed in allowing a Photoshopped image of the war in Lebanon to pass muster. Once again, the blogosphere is living up to its unofficial motto: "we fact-check your ass."

Reuters--unlike Rather--has admitted the fraud and removed the photo. And perhaps the most interesting factoid about the entire story is the identity of the photographer, one Adnan Hajj, who was also the Reuters photographer at Qana.

The original "gate"--Watergate--was huge news at the time. But as the years have rolled by, and nearly every scandal has been given the "gate" appellation, most of them have been of little or no consequence.

Reutergate should be important, but not just because of this particular incident--which, in isolation, would not matter a whole lot. Its importance lies in the fact that it's part of a larger pattern in which once-respected news agencies and newspapers have become compromised. Not only do they regularly violate the cardinal rule of journalism--fact-checking and photo-checking: in short, truth--but they have become the willing or unwilling, ignorant or knowledgeable, tools of the enemy (see this).

Second Draft is a website devoted to explaining how the media has disseminated the lies of "Pallywood" around the globe, creating a fictional reality that has influenced perceptions about the Middle East, especially in Europe, where the most famous Pallywood oeuvre, "Caught in the Crossfire" (otherwise known as "the death of Mohamed al Durah"), was widely publicized and fueled anti-Israel sentiment. It's since become clear that in Qana the press coverage of the aftermath was at least partly a Pallywood production, as well.

I wonder how much coverage this incident will get outside of the blogosphere. And the blogs, unfortunately, are preaching mainly to the choir. Just now, for instance, I Googled "reuters photoshop lebanon," and all that came up in the way of news stories was an article in the Jerusalem Post, and a short one at that.

It remains to be seen if the MSM will even see this as a wakeup call to vet their stringers better, or whether it will end with the suspension of Adnan Hajj. But it's about much more than Hajj; the truth is that this photo wasn't even a good example of Photoshopping. As many observers have pointed out, it was crude and obvious and should have been caught--if anyone had been looking.

The same, of course, was true of the Dan Rather memos. Anyone familiar with the difference between a typewriter and a word processor could--and should--have seen the forgery. But one had to have been looking. And the press has stopped looking.

So it's not just about stringers, although that's part of it. Whether or not it's also about bias (and I happen to believe it is), at the very least it's about standards. The MSM needs to raise them, and to fact-check and photocheck and proofread itself in a new way. It needs to realize that it is now one of the major fronts in the war in which we are currently engaged, and that it's being co-opted by forces that are not only the enemy, but are the enemy of a free press as well.

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