You know the old expression, “A rumor can fly around the world before the truth can put its shoes on.” The adage is as true today as it ever was....if not more so.
Now there can be many types of rumors... sometimes it’s an exaggeration of the truth, just a little. Sometimes the rumors are whoppers, so fantastical they stretch the bounds of reality. Usually it’s something kids grow out of, for the most part, but I will admit to periodically partaking in a round of juicy gossip when I’m on the phone with my girls back home. Though I will say, our standards of gossip are usually higher than just mere rumors.
The most successful rumors are the ones that are impossible to disprove or have just enough truth to stretch your imagination but not necessarily break it.
And once a well-placed rumor has taken off... good luck trying to get out ahead of any of it.
Rumors can be helpful... like in the form of tips to police. They can also be very wrong.
I’m reminded of my of high school years, when my mom would hear that I was going to be throwing a party some weekend when my parents were going to be out of town. The likelihood of me throwing a party rated somewhere near a snowball’s chance in Hades....you’ve met my mom, right?
But if you believed the rumor mill, I was up to all manner of trouble. Most of the time the rumors were so bad they could be laughed off. Sometimes they had a sliver of basis in reality, like those rumors of the over-the-top parties, because in fact my parents really were going to be gone, and my sister and I did get to have a friend or two stay the night. Sometimes not... me drinking beer, even in high school, was pretty laughable. I couldn’t finish a can before it got warm!
Those rumors really didn’t have many consequences, other than a parental inquisition or two, which may or may not still play prominently in a stress-induced nightmare. I swear, my mom could have been a high inquisitor back in the day.
When it comes to matters of importance in society, it was decided that rumor should hold no sway. Especially when it comes to the law. Legal standards don’t allow second- or third-hand information from even the most impeccable of sources for a reason. We all know how information shifts from one telling to the next to the next, usually not favorably to the truth.
That standard hasn’t been all that important when it comes to politics... political whispers and innuendo are as old as politics itself. Rumors get traded as political currency so often that an “October Surprise” is pretty much expected every election season.
Professional industries in D.C. are centered around political rumor-mongering.
The worst are the “opposition research firms” where rumors and innuendo get collected and collated into stories and narratives that can be shopped to press outlets and decision-makers, going to the highest bidder. Any opinion or policy can be represented, if you can pay the retainer plus hourly rate. Which doesn’t come cheap.
Bonus points are given when foreign countries and corrupt oligarchs use these shops for favorable news cycles and coverage before government actions are taken that can affect their foreign aid, government contract or in the case of the oligarch visa status.
So often lately, much of our political discourse is based not on any kind of truth, but on anonymous sources and leaks. Anonymity, as a journalistic construct exists for a reason. Sources should be protected, and have served the purposes of a greater good for society. These protections are important, and have been used in American politics before there was even an American government.
These protections have always depended on the continued trust between reader and reporter to get the facts of a story right. But what happens when the anonymous sources have an agenda? Whether good or bad, motives count and factor into the evaluation of the trustworthiness of a source.
Long-term investigative reporters, usually older and wiser, were the first to go when daily newspapers started feeling the hits of the digital age. Advertising revenue plummeted with the advent of CraigsList and Facebook. And owners looking at bottom lines started cutting where there is little monetary return. Employment costs are much lower for newbies right out of journalism school. Gone was the cynicism from a profession that carried it in spades, replaced with the fervor and devotion that only the young bring to most endeavors.
Those young graduates had come of age in a media and academic landscape that tilted 90 percent progressive. This starts to explain how we got to a media landscape in 2019 where I trust random accounts and independent journalists on Twitter before most national news sources.
Stories develop over days, weeks and months, but digital news has led to a race of being first, not best.
Selection bias is bad enough when consuming news. But when your job is informing the public about the actions of the government, well, it gets noticed that so many “smart” people repeatedly seem ill-informed about news contrary to their preferences.
In the days of social media and click bait, these research firms provide much of the backstory to reporters who don’t know the ropes or their subject matter. These firms pass information packets and provide briefings by their sources behind the scenes to favored outlets and reporters. They’ve been known to brief government agencies and elected officials, and lobby for legislation or to remove sanctions. Who are these firms accountable to?
Add into this mix some of things we’ve found out over the last couple of years....reports of FBI agents getting sports tickets and cash from journalists, government intelligence employees involved in relationships with national security reporters, and seemingly half the professional class in D.C. married to someone in the news business.
Well, the waters get even dirtier when figuring out who to trust.
Does any of this seem bad to anyone else? Because farming out this kind of work, whether it’s used in a federal investigation against the President of the United States or appears on the front page, seems like something that is going to end very badly.