Two of the most dangerous, and most damning, words in journalism and politics are the ubiquitous and unsupportable “If True.”
Examples from recent history:
- A major New York newspaper publishes an unverified report that says the son of a prominent politician accepted a lucrative job in return for access to that politician. If true, it would indicate demonstrate influence-peddling by that politician, who was elected in that cycle.
- A known spy supplies fake opposition research to a campaign. If true, it would indicate the opponent’s collusion with a foreign country. That evidence was provided to a secret court, which then permited surveillance of the opponent’s campaign, citing national security. The candidate was elected but dogged throughout his term of office by the allegations. An investigation into the case continues.
- A judicial nominee is rocked by allegations of a sexual assault from his high school years. If true, these would disqualify him. The claims could not be verified and he was appointed.
- A candidate hints, implies and asserts that his opponent has a mental disability. If true, the opponent would be incompetent for the job. The claim was never proved and the opponent was elected.
- A magazine publishes a report citing anonymous sources that, if true, would show a candidate has disrespected a major constituency.
The list above is only a sample and not intended to deliver or debate the latest developments. The point is that true or not, something that is raised as if true is virtually indefensible.
What might be real news if true often is not true, or not provable as true. How can you prove a negative? Or it might be true but cannot be confirmed for weeks, months, or even years.
Meanwhile, other media pick up on the sensational story, assert its truth without confirming, and build its momentum.
Media can and should have their own perspectives. That’s the essence of the First Amendment. But they don’t have to make it easy to be dismissed as “fake news.”
They’re shooting themselves in the foot every time they do.