When Story Is Too Good To Be True

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said no to someone who alerted me to a “really great story,” my Christmas shopping would be finished.

Time was when I turned them down once a month, on average. Nowadays, it happens nearly every day.

What brings us this up is what happened at The Washington Post. A woman approached them, claiming that years ago, when 15, she had become pregnant and had an abortion. The father, she claimed, was Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Moore, a Republican, has been accused by several women of sexually harassing, even assaulting them. In turn, the Post has been accused of pursuing a vendetta against him, via “fake news.”

It turned out the woman who contacted the Post was working for Project Veritas and was attempting to lure the paper into printing her false claim. Then, Project Veritas could expose the lie and make the Post look as if it would stoop to any level to attack Moore.

But the Post learned the woman was a fake, and reported that, instead.

If you’re a newspaper editor, you may have wondered, would my newspaper have fallen for the ruse?

I doubt it. Veteran editors here have developed pretty good instincts about whether people are telling the truth. And, we’ve learned to live by a simple rule: If the story sounds too great to be true, it probably isn’t. Though we at this paper don’t have the small army of fact checkers the Post employs, our noses are just as good.

We can smell a rat.

Many times during my career, I’ve received phone calls from people who wanted me to print exposes about corruption. They had proof, they would say. Upon being asked to produce it, the response almost invariably was that, “Well, everyone knows he’s a crook.”

I don’t recall a single instance in which our checking — and we do it — revealed real proof of crooked behavior.

It does happen, of course. And when we become aware of it and have evidence to back up our conclusions, we print the stories.

Here’s the thing: During recent years, we’ve received far more suggestions about allegedly great stories than we did in the past. Some target Republican politicians. Others are aimed at Democrats. And invariably, claims against them are based on something someone saw on the internet.

It comes down to this: For some reason, millions of Americans have decided proof of misbehavior is:

1. I don’t like the person.

2. I saw it on the internet.

Sometimes it seems our rule — the “better” the story, the more likely it isn’t true — has been turned on its head.

There are all sorts of dangers in that attitude, not the least of which is the little boy crying wolf syndrome: When a real, proven scandal occurs, many people are less likely to believe the story if it shows a politician they like is a villain, or even has made a mistake.

We in newspapering make mistakes. When that happens, we try to run corrections. Unlike most who post “great” stories on the internet, we have a stake in believability.

So here’s my suggestion for a Christmas present you can give yourself: If you don’t see the story a friend tipped you off about via social media in the newspaper, ask yourself this: Could there be a good reason the paper didn’t print it?

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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