How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Media?

How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Media?

The attacks on Ben Carson are twenty-first-century American media in a nutshell: we got it wrong, but we were still right.

I never intended to become the go-to guy for defending Ben Carson, but in the pages of this august publication I have already done so twice. Carson is not my first choice for candidate. He is not even in my top five. But the treatment this man has received from the media and pundit class has frequently been so dishonest and unfair that it seems necessary to come to his defense.

Grilling a presidential candidate is the media’s job, of course, but they have a responsibility to do so fairly and with a modicum of professional dignity. Carson’s critics have often cheerfully abandoned both of these notions. For Carson’s troubles, we can only hope that President Rubio—in either his first or second term—offers the good doctor some kind of suitable sinecure in one of the few bureaucracies that President Rubio will have not defunded and shut down.

Start with the Politico Fiasco

Last week saw the latest attack on Carson, a partisan hit-piece so breathtakingly transparent that it makes Joseph Pulitzer’s yellow journalism look like a reflective essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Politico’s Kyle Cheney published an article so earnest in its dishonesty that you almost believe Cheney himself bought it. According to the report, Carson had been lying for years about his application, admission, and offer of a “full scholarship” to West Point.

As it turns out, however, Carson never applied, and there are no records of him having been offered a “full scholarship” to the military academy. Carson’s campaign affirmed that, yes, Carson had never applied; Cheney interpreted this as Carson’s “admitting” that the doctor had “fabricated” the story; Politico ran to press with the scoop, and everyone lost their minds over the lying Ben Carson and his lying autobiography.

Of course, ‘Ben Carson was kind of mildly confused about West Point when he was a teenager’ does not have the same ring to it.

Except it turns out that the entire premise of Cheney’s piece was fatally flawed. Carson never claimed to have “applied” to West Point, and in fact on several occasions has affirmed that he only ever applied to one college (it was Yale). Barring any damning evidence to the contrary, it is obvious what happened: Carson was encouraged by a military general to attend West Point and assured that, should he choose to go, all his expenses would be paid (as is the custom at West Point).

Carson interpreted this as a “full scholarship,” leading to the relevant passage in his book. That’s it—that’s the only story that was here. But, of course, “Ben Carson was kind of mildly confused about West Point when he was a teenager” does not have the same ring to it.

So Politico ran with it—and slandered Carson in an almost-galactic scale: the piece was shared nearly 80,000 times on Facebook alone. After pushback from Carson and his campaign, the website added a lame editor’s note that (a) acknowledged the fraudulent premise of the article, and (b) declared that Politico “stands by its reporting.” This is twenty-first-century American media in a nutshell: we got it wrong, but we were still right.

That Wasn’t the Only Thing

Elsewhere, a new accusation was hurled Carson’s way: there were suspicions that a story from his youth—in which he tried to stab someone in a fit of anger and eventually found religion as a result—was also fabricated. As it turns out, this story, too, seems to be true: years ago, Carson’s mother herself corroborated the story. Which is to say, Carson’s honesty and integrity were yet again dragged through the mud before the media could be bothered to do its job.

It may be happening again on a third question, of whether an incident Carson described as having happened at Yale really did. Again, he’s been accused and again produced evidence for his claims.

With all of this is mind—along with the countless other instances of unprofessionalism, bias, and hostility towards conservatives that we see almost every day—here are three good rules to follow if you’re consuming any kind of media from the mainstream, especially when it involves reporting on conservatives or conservative principles in any way.

1. Be Skeptical of What You’re Reading

This doesn’t mean you have to assume that all members of the media are liars, or that they’re as dishonest and unprofessional as Cheney. But a great many journalists and pundits are either unwilling or incapable of doing fair reportage on many topics, particularly those that involve conservative issues or conservative people.

A great many journalists and pundits are either unwilling or incapable of doing fair reportage.

The Planned Parenthood undercover videos exposed the media’s incompetence and bias to a startling degree. We saw the same thing regarding the Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape hoax, which pushed a feminist narrative without bothering to check the facts, and elsewhere we’ve seen reporters cheerfully happy to carry water for pro-abortion politicians.

Does this mean you can’t trust anything the media reports on? Of course not. But when it comes to controversial political topics that involve important facts and details, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that much if not most of the media might be somewhat untrustworthy. You don’t want to adopt a cynical, wild-eyed paranoia about what’s being reported in your local newspaper or favorite news network, but a healthy skepticism can be a great boon when it comes to reportage on politics and politicians.

2. Armed with Your Skepticism, Read Very Carefully

I am ashamed to say it, but I was initially taken in by the Carson story. It seemed like the man had been caught red-handed. But then people started pointing out the inconsistencies between what Carson had said and what Politico said he said. After going back and reading the piece a few more times, it was clear how completely wrong and dishonest Cheney’s reporting had been.

We should be especially careful about things that appear to validate our preexisting beliefs.

It can be easy sometimes to gloss over an article when you think you’ve got the gist of it. This goes double when it seems like your biases are being confirmed. I like Carson a great deal, but I have a low political opinion of him, so it seemed like my opinion was being validated. Having slowed down and re-read the material, it became obvious not just how bad Cheney’s piece was, but also how quickly I’d accepted its premise because of my own feelings and opinions.

We all do this, but it’s worthwhile to try and curb this tendency. We should read everything carefully, of course, but we should be especially careful about things that appear to validate our preexisting beliefs, and we should double that carefulness when it comes to the media’s reporting on conservative candidates or conservative political causes.

3. Read the Source Material

It has been liberal and feminist dogma for years that the so-called “campus rape epidemic” is mostly driven by “repeat” or “serial” offenders—a small number of criminals who repeatedly and freely prey upon the female college population. This has been elevated to the level of Facts Everyone Knows, and it is endlessly repeated by left-leaning and feminist crusaders in print, online, and on television.

Earlier this year, however, Linda LeFauve of Davidson College took a look at the 2002 study by David Lisak that makes this “repeat offender” claim. Lisak’s findings have been cited by anti-rape activists for over a decade. LeFauve found that “the paper relies on survey data not collected by Lisak, with no direct connection to campus sexual assault.” So it turns out:

The most widely quoted figures—that 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by serial offenders and that they average six rapes each—were calculated on a total of 76 non-traditional students who were not living on a college campus, and whose offenses may or may not have happened on or near a college campus, may or may not have been perpetrated on other students, and may have happened at any time in the survey respondents’ adult lives.

Needless to say, with these revelations, the widely-known and -accepted “repeat offender” statistic has been called into serious question. Lisak has been mostly silent on the matter, but it seems as if his research was deeply flawed and his conclusions were wildly off-base.

If someone had looked into this sooner, we might have been saved from almost a decade and a half of a false, misleading statistic.

Nonetheless, it took 13 years for someone to figure this out. Why? Because apparently nobody bothered to check the source material. Nobody bothered to follow the paper trail of this extraordinary “90 percent” claim. If someone had looked into this sooner, we might have been saved from almost a decade and a half of a false, misleading statistic.

This is why it’s necessary to read the source material. If a pundit should cite a study favorable to his or her conclusions, check it out. This goes double if it’s one of those “everyone knows” statistics. The same goes for other types of source material. If I’d sat down to the relevant passage from Carson’s autobiography, it would have been obvious that the accusations being leveled against him were wrong, and I wouldn’t have embarrassed myself by eagerly sharing the story.

In other words: do your homework. Some of the time it won’t amount to anything. But lots of times you’ll realize how wrong certain conclusions really are.

As I said, you don’t want to make yourself paranoid that the media are 100 percent liars 100 percent of the time. That would not be helpful, and it simply isn’t true. You do not want to be paranoid and insulated from so much media. But neither should you accept everything uncritically, without an eye towards the fact that a great many members of the Fourth Estate are biased, unfair, unprofessional, and happy to publish incorrect or misleading information if it gets the results they want. This is true now more than ever.

So be critical of what you’re reading, watching, or listening to—for Ben Carson, and for who inevitably comes after him.

Daniel Payne is an assistant editor for The College Fix, the news magazine of the Student Free Press Association. Daniel's work has appeared in outlets such as National Review Online, Reason, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere. His personal blog can be found at Trial of the Century. He lives in Virginia.
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