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Shooting rumors like ducks in a row

Jim Willis Published: June 6, 2013

Last night I was scrolling though the news feed on my Facebook page when I came across a post of a news story about Ann Coulter, and I found myself gasping for air.

The story was that she had refused to fly on a plane being piloted by an African-American woman, and even tried to rally her fellow passengers into protesting a pilot who clearly must have gotten her job because of Affirmative Action requirements and not because of ability. Passenger safety was at risk, wasn’t it? The story just kept getting wierder after that.

Conservative political commentator Ann Coulter. (AP Photo)
Conservative political commentator Ann Coulter. (AP Photo)


Not being a fan of Ms. Coulter’s political rants, I thought, OK, this sounds like her. Logic prevailed, however, when I realized this was too over-the-top, even for her. Could this story be a prank?

A short time later, confirmed that, in fact, it was false. It was meant to be a satire. But I teach media law and found it coming dangerously close to libel, no matter what one’s political persuasions are.  I’m a former journalist and, if I was having trouble telling it was satire, I assumed others did as well.

Once again, I found myself grateful for fact-checkers like the Snopes people, who do a pretty good job of separating fact, fiction, and rumor on the Web.

Snopes gains traction

The website was founded by Barbara and David Mikkelson. The couple started it in the L.A. area when they became interested in probing the degrees of truth in urban legends. Today their site is highly respected by journalists and others trying to sort out fact from fiction on the Web. It has received two Webby Awards for its work.

On a media platform like the Internet — and especially with the social media — where there are so many rumors, opinions, and bad jokes posed every minute, it’s good to have a little fact-checking tossed into the mix.

Duck Dynasty

Another current example of how this helps: For a couple weeks now, other political ranters have been decrying alleged efforts by “liberals” to remove praying and guns from the popular cult A&E series, Duck Dynasty. A couple of my FB friends chimed in with that chorus, and I was wondering what the ruckus was since I had not seen any news stories about such a movement to change the nature of the show.

Willie, Phil, and Si Robertson are three of the starts of A&E's Duck Dynasty reality TV series. (AP Photo)
Willie, Phil, and Si Robertson are three of the starts of A&E's Duck Dynasty reality TV series. (AP Photo)

This morning, as if in direct answer to that question, Snopes gives the story a “false” rating. There has been no such protest of praying and guns on Duck Dynasty. Alan Robertson, the son of star Phil Robertson, is quoted as saying, “The rumor that A&E told the Robertsons to tone down guns and prayer is not true. We continue to partner with A&E to make a great TV show that reflects our family’s values.” Missy Robertson, the wife of star Jase Robertson, said she had no knowledge of any attempted pressure being applied either.

Reality vs. Pictures

The late, great journalist/philosopher Walter Lippmann wrote a lot about how the media affects public opinion. In fact, his classic book was called Public Opinion. In that book, Lippmann noted that there is a world out there, there are pictures in our head, and those pictures are put there largely by the media. The pictures become our reality, whether they are true or not.

I picked up on that thread in a book I wrote called, The Shadow World: Life Between the News Media and Realityand suggested it would be nice if those pictures are at least close to reality. The reason is that, while the pictures represent a shadow world, we react to those pictures in the very real world.

Citizen journalists

Media bashers should start realizing that the social media is taking much of the clout away from the traditional news media, but that we still get wrong-headed views of the world because of the half-truths and whole lies that are spread as reality via Facebook and Twitter posts. And that is not the fault of some “liberal” media corporation, but of each and everyone of us who tries to pass rumor and opinion off as fact online.


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