How "Facts" Become Facts in Media Echo Chamber

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There’s an interesting piece on NYTimes.com about media outlets repeating what each other report–whether or not it’s true, and not bothering to check with the original source to establish veracity.

In this case, it’s about a key member in the Obama camp saying he was “queasy” about suddenly hot Republican hopeful Jon Huntsman running for president.

Matt Bai, chief political correspondent for the NY Times Magazine, wrote in this coming Sunday’s mag:

Common wisdom had it that Obama and his team had shrewdly decided to move Huntsman out of the country and take him off the Republican playing field for 2012 - a not-illogical conclusion, given than David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, had noted that Huntsman was the one potential adversary who made him feel “a wee bit queasy.”

Bai then breaks down how the Plouffe/Huntsman/”queasy” thing, which Plouffe never actually said, came to pop up in the media over and over and over, including in his own feature. A Salt Lake City TV station, KTVX, plays a role in the mythmaking of Plouffe’s reported queasiness toward Huntsman, a former Utah governor, by mistakenly quoting Plouffe two years ago, for a quote that never happened.

[I left a message at the KTVX newsroom to see if they care to comment.]

Bai writes:

It’s one of those quotes that has just sort of entered the public domain, checked for accuracy against other reports that checked it for accuracy against other reports and so on. The problem is that it turns out not to be true.

Near as I can reconstruct it, here is what happened: a reporter for U.S. News and World Report attended a panel in May 2009 where Plouffe spoke admiringly of Governor Huntsman and singled him out as a strong presidential candidate. (Chances are Plouffe already knew at this point that the president was looking to hire Huntsman as his ambassador to China, so that was a clever bit of gamesmanship.) The reporter, Nikki Schwab, quoted Plouffe, but this “wee bit queasy” business was her formulation, not Plouffe’s, and did not appear in quotation marks.

Then the Salt Lake City media, always eager for news about their governor, got into the act. The Deseret News published a piece that cited the U.S. News article in a way that left ambiguous whether the quote was from Plouffe or from the reporter. The local ABC affiliate then lifted that story, but left no doubt about the origin of the quote.

“President Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, tells U.S. News and World Report that Gov. Jon Huntsman makes him ‘a wee bit queasy,’ ” the station’s online posting said. (The only thing true in that sentence, really, was that Plouffe was the president’s campaign manager.)

From there, the bum “fact” got picked up by Washington media outlets, the blogosphere, and all sorts of other media.

Bai thankfully sets the record straight, even if he’s too late to stop the error from appearing under his byline.

Is it a series of honest mistakes, or is it indicative of pervasive laziness in newsrooms around the country?

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