I should start by noting there is some danger in writing a column about things that did not happen because I risk adding fuel to the false stories that say otherwise. My colleague Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter, has written about the concept of “the liar’s dividend,” in which in order to debunk a rumor, a journalist repeats or refers to the rumor, thereby giving the rumor-monger a reward.
But, since we are in the truth business and these things have to do with the news, let’s dive in.
The dung-shovelers at Project Veritas ran undercover video earlier this week (I am not linking to it) that they said was proof that “CBS This Morning” staged COVID-19 testing at a Grand Rapids, Michigan, clinic to make the clinic appear to be overrun with patients. CBS said it did no such thing.
I contacted the clinic, which danced around with vague statements from Tasha Blackmon, the clinic’s president and CEO, like: “To my knowledge, CBS This Morning did not stage any part of their visit to our site.”
I reached out to the clinic a second and third time to try to get clarity. If CBS didn’t stage it, did anybody order clinic workers to get in line to fake being tested? Finally, the clinic now admits that yes, it did ask some workers to jump into the testing line.
In a statement, Blackmon said:
After conducting an internal investigation, we learned that a few staff were encouraged to pull their cars up in the testing line to provide a visual backdrop showing how busy the testing site can get.
This was done with the intention of protecting patient privacy since many of the patients scheduled for a COVID-19 test on that day declined to be filmed for HIPAA reasons. The individual responsible for this mistake has accepted responsibility and expressed deep remorse for this unfortunate situation.
There is no evidence — zero — that CBS knew about the clinic’s staging. The clinic’s CEO said CBS didn’t know about it. But CBS took a beating anyway. A Google search shows a sampling:
CBS did edit the video online to remove clips of the testing site after it learned staff members were in line, and added a note to the page, which said:
Editor’s Note: CBS News could not verify the authenticity of a scene from one of the testing sites initially featured in this story. At least one staff member of Cherry Health, which operated the testing site in Michigan, may have been in line along with real patients. The story aired last Friday, however, CBS News learned of that possibility Tuesday night, and references to that testing site have been deleted from the video and this accompanying article.
Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham had a ball with the story:
Now that we know it was the clinic, not CBS, that placed workers in the line, and that there is no proof that CBS knew a thing about it, what’s the big deal?
Project Veritas got its name in headlines for making an accusation against CBS, then crowed about it:
“The video gained MILLIONS of views and reached #6 on Twitter’s US trending topics.”
“This story was so powerful that even The Washington Post had to cover it.”
Never mind that it is not true and that the clinic admits that it was their idea all along; CBS was trashed. That’s what Project Veritas does — trashes mainstream journalism. It is the liar’s dividend.
Which brings us to Thursday evening.
Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel took a shot at Vice President Mike Pence for delivering protective gear to a nursing home outside of Washington, D.C. Kimmel pulled a piece of video and sound from a staged press event in which the vice president unloaded a few boxes of supplies.
In it, the vice president returned to the delivery van after unloading full boxes, where the driver told him the rest of the boxes in the truck were empty. Pence asked whether they should unload those, too, “For the cameras?” There was a bit of joking about how much lighter those boxes would be before they closed the van doors. No empty boxes were unloaded.
That didn’t stop Kimmel from saying the boxes Pence delivered were empty.
Then reporters dove on it.
And the rapid response team for Joe Biden chimed in:
This morning, I pulled up the C-SPAN video. It showed Vice President Pence unloading full boxes and, after a few trips back and forth came the joke about carrying the empty ones. It’s clear none of the empty boxes ever came out of the van. Here is the segment I pulled from the C-SPAN raw feed.
Kimmel took down his original post and put up this one, which admits no mistakes. Even the apology is couched in snark.
In my opinion, Kimmel owes an on-air apology and clarification. And, if I was running an ABC affiliate, I probably would mention it on the news.
The liar’s dividend here is paid to Pence haters, who only heard that a dopey event to start with was even more ridiculous than it might have been.
And then there is the video — I will not use the word documentary — called “Plandemic,” which melts the internet every time somebody sneaks it onto social media before it gets yanked down again.
I am linking to it here because if you are going to explore the truth and the fakes surrounding it, I suppose you have to see it. My colleagues at PolitiFact looked at eight things “Plandemic” got wrong, and this paragraph by PolitiFact staff writer Daniel Funke set the tone for what is to follow:
In “Plandemic,” (Mikki) Willis interviews Dr. Judy Mikovits, a former scientist at the National Cancer Institute. Mikovits, before her work was discredited, was lauded in the late 2000s for her research on chronic fatigue syndrome. Mikovits makes several claims that are either unsupported or outright false.
Eight out of eight things Funke fact-checked about the story turned out to be, in order: “inaccurate, not correct, a wrong explanation, misleading, unproven, inaccurate, inaccurate, no evidence to support this.”
The liar’s dividend is paid by the more than a million viewers who watched the video, even while tarnishing the reputations of scientists who deserve better and, worse, raising unfounded doubts about a science-based response to the pandemic.
In case you skipped part of the text, let me repeat the headline.
CBS did not stage COVID-19 testing.
Pence did not unload empty boxes of supplies at a nursing home.
“Plandemic” is nonsense.
You can hate the media, hate Pence and love conspiracies, but those are facts. Love facts, please, even if you don’t like where the facts point you. That is all I am asking.
Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.