For several years, I’ve criticized the cable networks for failing to discriminate between what’s fact, what’s rumor, what’s trivial and what matters. Last night, we saw one of the most dramatic examples yet, as CNN brought us the “breaking news” that a mass grave had been found in Texas.
Immediately, we had Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve on camera, commenting about recent mass graves south of the border and telling us that her sources (more than one, apparently) were reporting that there were at least 25 or 30, and there was a hint that there might be other sites on the property.
To his credit, John King offered a word of caution after the original report, saying that the first reports in stories like this sometimes turn out to be inaccurate.
In fact, he was right. It was a hoax.
To return to a dead horse that I haven’t beat in a while, the root cause isn’t just sloppy reporting. It’s the rush to get the news on the air right away. After all, there are minutes to fill. Before CNN, there were safeguards built into the system. Many wildly errant stories die quickly of their own accord, as this one did. Rumors get corrected. Editors have time to send reporters back to verify stories. Everybody gets a chance to think through whether the story matters at all.
Once the authorities actually got a warrant and looked at the property, it was clear that the bodies just weren’t there. In fact, if you believe the later versions, it’s likely that the only crime was the filing of a false report.