Sunday, November 16, 2008

What goes with the bath water?

This story had been confusing me for a few days. I think I've got a handle on it now.

We all remember FOX's Carl Cameron reported to Shepard Smith that a source inside the McCain campaign accused Sarah Palin of not knowing the continents. Everybody chuckled and realized that it's a non-issue. At least not for another four years.

Then MSNBC came out with a story that Martin Eisenstadt had revealed himself as the source.

Almost immediately Eisenstadt was exposed as a fictional character. A publicity stunt for a movie.

The retractions of the story are where I got confused. There are several claims in any story as it unfolds. Which part is false?

If I tell you that Mrs Royce my homeroom teacher in the 3rd grade told me that four plus three is eight, then another source tells you that it's not true, there are several ways you could understand that. First of all you probably know that the equation is incorrect. So is that all I meant? Did Mrs Royce really tell me anything like that? Did she say five plus three? Four plus four? Eleven minus three? Four times two? And what if you know that Mrs Royce was my 4th grade teacher? Was it in fact Mrs Royce, but not in the 3rd grade? Was it my 3rd grade teacher Mrs Wolford who told me that? Did anybody's teacher say anything like that to me? Ever?

So I blame my confusion about the hoax on stories like the following quick post (by RIGHTISRIGHT over at

MSNBC was the victim of a hoax when it reported that an adviser to John McCain had identified himself as the leaker of an embarrassing story about Sarah Palin. The story was faked by filmmakers Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

The second sentence can be read two ways:
  1. The story that was faked was the identification
  2. The story that was faked was the embarrassing one about Palin.

Because story in the 2nd sentence can so easily be connect to story in the first, and because they are in such close proximity, this report makes it sound like the hoax was the embarrassing story about Palin. But it could go either way. So it should probably be rewritten.

This wasn't the first report I read about the hoax but whichever one I read or heard left me with the same question. Exactly what was being retracted?

Friday morning during my daily NPR fix the story came up on the Diane Rehm show when Sheryl Gay Stolberg responded to an email by a listener, Theresa:

Rehm (reading): Regarding Governor Palin: The recent lies being spread about her are deplorable. I think that that says much about her image: that people and news organizations could believe she did not know that Africa is a continent. These kinds of lies would never be entertained if they were with regard to any other candidate on the national stage.

Stolberg: You know, I think the caller does tap into something. First of all…uh…it…it was a hoax…um…eh…somebody…uh…posing as a McCain advisor…uh…trying to promote a movie I think…uh…fancied himself a…a spokesman, created a YouTube video and…uh…got…got picked up on TV that this so-called McCain advisor was saying Sarah Palin didn't know that Africa was a continent. it abs—

Rehm: And thus NBC then had to correct itself—

Stolberg: —picked it up. That's right had to correct itself. So absolutely wasn't true. I guess unfortunately for Sarah Palin she became during the course of the campaign the kind of candidate that…about which those kinds of things could be believed. … It's sad to say but uh the news media was taken in but she herself made some statements that made that kind of hoax believable.

Before I listening to this show I had been thinking that the hoax was only about the identity of the McCain source, not the story about Palin. Here Stolberg states clearly that the whole thing was a hoax: that no source from the McCain campaign ever made such a claim. Of course she also said early in the show that Joe Biden had called Dick Cheney the most dangerous man in America. A listener corrected her and she graciously accepted the responsible correction. So she's not an airtight source.

What is? It might surprise you.

A FOX News story addresses this confusion clearly.

The hoax was limited to the identity of the source in the story about Palin -- not the FOX News story itself. While Palin has denied that she mistook Africa for a country, the veracity of that report was not put in question by the revelation that Eisenstadt is a phony.

Before we heap praise on FOX for simply being a more responsible and precise news source we should note that they have an obvious interest in preserving the dignity of the original story which they reported. Naturally when they correct the later development contributed by MSNBC they're going to be vigilant in letting the reader know that the story as first reported by FOX is still legitimate.


  1. minor correction: is not the Drudge Report, but a parody thereof. The Drudge Report is at and does not, afaik, have any employees other than Matt Drudge himself.

  2. my thanks. i completely missed the distinction. now corrected.

  3. How old IS Diane Rhem, really?


  4. she's 72.

    but careful -- she sounds older to a lot of people because of the spasmodic dysphonia that makes her voice sound shaky.

    RFK jr's voice is affect by the same.


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