A Grain Of Saul: 2 Pieces Of Advice I’d Give Political Junkies In 2018

We must be better in the new year.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

Slow down and read past the headline. 

If I can give news consumers two pieces of advice in the New Year, those would be it. Every single time you read a "bombshell" news story or something that seems like it's too insane to be true, just slow down and read the story — because it might not be. 

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In the last couple months alone, we again and again saw misleading news stories and inaccurate tweets take off so fast and be shared so wildly that often times corrections and clarifications that came 10 or 20 minutes later couldn't stop misinformation from catapulting around the world. Every day seemed to be a reminder of Winston Churchill's famous words: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."

Ask a supporter of President Donald Trump, who helped elevate the term "fake news," and they'll tell you these partially inaccurate or downright false stories are almost always anti-Trump. It's not hard to see why — with so many Trump-related stories, corrections involving him seem to come on a weekly or monthly basis.

A few weeks ago, ABC News reported that President Trump had directed former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, and that Flynn was prepared to testify as much. The report set off a firestorm of speculation that this was the smoking gun of alleged collusion that would sink Trump. The stock market temporarily crashed and Democrats began a premature celebration.

Army Lieutenant General (Retired) Michael Flynn addresses the 2016 Republican National Convention at the Quicken Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. mark reinstein / Shutterstock.com

But then, about seven hours later, ABC had to make an on-air correction to note that Trump actually asked Flynn to contact Russian officials after he had won the election, a normal course of action for a president-elect. By the time that correction came, I had already retweeted and shared the story on Facebook, confessing to my followers that — for the first time — I was starting to think there might be something to this whole Russia investigation. I moved too quick and, hours later, I wasn't looking too bright. Trump supporters started showing up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds accusing me of spreading fake news. And they were right.

Just a few days later, CNN reported that Donald Trump Jr. had received Wikileaks documents on Sept. 4, 2016, before Wikileaks had made them public. But later that day CNN had to issue a correction, noting that the email was actually dated Sept. 14, meaning he was offered the documents — like many other well-known politicos and journalists — after Wikileaks had made them public. 

Inaccurate stories or social media posts that require corrections aren't always bad for Trump, and — intentionally or not — it's the White House that has frequently accelerated the sharing of an erroneous report

You probably heard about the border patrol agents in West Texas who were allegedly attacked in an act of violence, resulting in the death of one agent. Some conservatives speculated the criminal or criminals were undocumented immigrants. The president tweeted that this was another example of why we needed a wall on the border of Mexico, implying that it was the result of something an undocumented immigrant trying to cross the border had done. This week, though, The New York Times is reporting that the border patrol agent's death is a mystery, and may not have involved any foul play but instead some kind of accident where the agents were hit by a passing truck on the highway. The local sheriff seems convinced of the latter. 

That's not to say The New York Times is infallible, either. On December 21, the paper tweeted that a judge had ruled President Trump was not violating the emoluments clause. Such news would be a blow to critics of the president claiming he has profited from the presidency, a violation of the United States Constitution. That same day, though, the paper of record had to delete the tweet and issue a correction that the judge had actually dismissed the case because he found the plaintiffs "lacked standing," not because the Trump was innocent.

Fox News helped spread the misinformation that one of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore's accusers forged a yearbook note he left her when she was in high school. Beverly Young Nelson, the accuser, said that she added the date and location of his note to her under his signature. Fox News promptly ran this headline in a tweet: "BREAKING NEWS: Roy Moore accuser admits she forged part of yearbook inscription attributed to Alabama senate candidate."

Later, it would delete the tweet and issue a correction, but the misleading headline spread like wildfire. As late as a day before the election, which occurred weeks later, comment sections on stories involving Moore were filled with claims that one of Moore's accusers had forged his signature in her yearbook.

Other misinformation takes longer to be corrected. In Obama's early years as president, Tea Party groups claimed repeatedly that they were being targeted by the IRS. It took until November of this year for their claims to be proven misleading — the IRS was was doing its job by scrutinizing all political groups, not just conservative ones. And yet Obama's so-called "IRS scandal" still lives on amongst conservative pundits. 

These stories, all from the last couple months, point to a tough reality: all news organizations, regardless of vigorous standards or alleged bias, are going to make mistakes. Those mistruths, though, only become indistinguishable from facts when impatient or uncritical readers share them wildly and rarely follow up. We all bear responsibility — not just the news organizations — to read critically and share stories with caution. 

The easiest way to do that is to slow down before you share and actually read past the headline.

Cover photo: Shutterstock / Debby Wong

You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul

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