In Search of “truthiness”: The Washington Post and the Koch Brothers
By Bruce Cameron, President Social Media ROi, March 23, 2014
On October 17, 2005, comedian/satirist Jon Stewart introduced the word “truthiness” into our vocabulary on The Daily Show. He used it to describe what Wikipedia defines as “a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts”. The word has been widely adopted ever since because it speaks to a broader desire to equate traditional journalism with facts and truths, distinct and separate from ideologies or opinions.
Traditional journalists are said to comprise “the fifth estate,” an important adjunct to the courts, the police, and elected officials in maintaining a free and civil society. But where do we fit the growing legion of bloggers, news aggregators and social media mavens? Are they in essence the sixth estate?
Independent bloggers and self appointed citizen journalists claim to act in the spirit of the fifth estate—rooting out the truth, uncovering injustice—but they often carry out this important task without the checks and balances normally associated with sound professional journalism. Those checks and balances include checking sources, verifying facts, objectively printing both sides of a story, and avoiding libelous comments and innuendo.
Imagine for a minute if the legal arena was suddenly inundated with self appointed judges and tribunals, each with their own code of conduct and rules, seeking justice and liberty for all. It would spell disaster for civil society.
So why then are bloggers and other social media aggregators and commentators not held to a higher standard?
Perhaps the social media arena is still too new to have evolved a system of checks and balances, or maybe it will always be a “Wild West” arena that assumes popularity is on par with accuracy.
However, in the quest for higher standards in social media reporting, the fight may have just begun.
Over the weekend, an important but relatively under-appreciated development occurred in the ongoing fight between advocates of building pipelines and those opposed. ROi Social Media believes that this event signals a turning point in social media reporting, where unquestioningly pro environmental writers will be placed under greater scrutiny in terms of conflicts of interest and substantiation of their claims.
What was all the fuss about? On March 20, The Washington Post ran a blog written by Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin stating that the Koch Brothers had the largest lease holdings in Alberta’s oilsands (not true), and then linked those trumped up numbers to an even more erroneous assertion that the Koch landholdings ensured the brothers’ support for the Keystone pipeline (it does not).
The story quickly went viral, initially spread far and wide by the many well-connected eco-activist groups, which view Keystone as the “line in the sand” in the battle to combat climate change. What happened next may be the game changer. After publication there were several surprisingly quick and powerful rebukes, as illustrated in Powerline columnist John Hinderaker’s letter to the editor of the Post and their strange response.
Hinderaker summed up the twisted logic that the Washington Post used to defend its original story:
“In the Post’s view, it is acceptable to publish articles that are both literally false (Koch is the largest tar sands leaseholder) and massively misleading (the Keystone Pipeline is all about Koch Industries), if by doing so the paper can “stir and inflame public debate in this election year.”
Another online commentator chimed in on the lunacy of the Post’s position. Jonah Goldberg’s comment also went viral:
“By this logic any unfair attack posing as reporting is worthwhile when people try to correct the record. Why not just have at it and accuse the Kochs of killing JFK or hiding the Malaysian airplane? The resulting criticism would once again provide “strong evidence that issues surrounding the Koch brothers’ political and business interests will stir and inflame public debate in this election year.”
This eruption of debate about the Washington Post coverage of the Koch brothers foreshadows a broader trend we see emerging: the growing realization among that many anti pipeline activists and their media allies will twist or even fabricate “facts” to suit their objectives. On the other side, the energy sector is rightfully accused of doing exactly the same thing in pursuit of its cause. Yet the pendulum is shifting back toward the centre, where a skeptical public will want more assurances about facts before making up their minds.
Can the sixth estate eventually find some sense of internal reliability or equilibrium? Let’s hope so. Otherwise, in our increasingly wired world, where more and more people get their news via non traditional sources, “truthiness” may overwhelm the truth itself.