One of the biggest concerns journalists have had since the explosion of blogs on the Internet is that people with no training in reporting will post “news” without verifying information obtained from a single person or uncertain sources.
An example of what can go wrong when such a procedure isn't followed was a blog posted on March 29, 2012, by Logan Smith claiming that South Carolina governor Nikki Haley -- considered by many to be one of the GOP's “brightest stars” at the time -- was about to be indicted on tax fraud charges, something that never happened and led to a defamation suit against the blogger, who was later slammed as an “idiot” and a “clown.”
According to an article written by Katherine Miller, a staff member of BuzzFeed, Smith stated that the accusations stemmed from Haley's work with the Sikh Religious Society, of which her parents are leaders. He also claimed that money was missing from the organization due to “shady finances.”
The story was attributed by the blogger to “two well-placed legal experts.” Actually, his only sources were another blog and a television reporter.
According to an affidavit, FITSNews.com, which Miller described as “a better-known and extremely controversial local blog,” and WIS-TV reporter Jody Barr -- along with public court filings -- were the “only external sources (Smith) consulted.”
As part of the settlement, Smith apologized to the group for posting the article. In an email statement dated Oct. 15 of this year, he wrote: “I was wrong. I realize and believe the story about the Sikh Religious Society was incorrect. I hope you find it in your heart to forgive what I assure you was an honest mistake.”
Nevertheless, Miller said, the article “became a kind of demonstration case for the ability of false rumors to spread quickly” and “immediately exploded on Twitter.” In addition, reporters “from The Hill [newspaper], CBS News, BuzzFeed and others tweeted about the story, while outlets including the Daily Beast and Daily Caller put up short items, with the latter pulling down a coveted Drudge Report link for its trouble.”
Rob Godfrey, a Haley spokesman who worked in the governor’s office at the time of the incident, noted in a statement it should serve as a lesson for people who cover the news:
From the beginning of what was an unfortunate episode for the Governor and, more importantly, for the Governor’s parents and their place of worship, we urged those charged with covering our office, in whom many place a great deal of trust, to proceed cautiously because we knew there was nothing to the allegations being pushed by anonymous, unaccountable bloggers and political antagonists.
While it was encouraging to see some of these reporters wait for all of the facts before reporting, it was at the same time discouraging to see others put a premium on being first at the expense of being right -- and we hope these revelations that highlight the absurdity of what they published, and the resultant embarrassment it causes their organizations, are lessons they carry forward.
In addition, Butch Bowers, legal counsel for the society, had a comment of his own: “While we’re glad to see Mr. Smith apologize and admit that his story was entirely fabricated, this episode is a sad example of what happens when the mainstream media take as fact the lies of unaccountable, agenda-driven antagonists who think access to a website makes them journalists.”
However, Miller noted that the rumor was also quick to “burn out.” Haley and her staff pushed back on Smith’s story immediately. “It is flat out not true,” the governor told the state's website.
Then on the following day, Haley gave reporters a letter from the Internal Revenue Service stating that no federal investigation was warranted for the period in question and that the matter had been resolved during the fall of 2011.
Not only did the New York Times frame the incident in negative terms, Miller said, but CNN's Peter Hamby also “used it to chide reporters for tweeting without working sources” in a paper released this fall by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
FITSNews.com's founding editor, Will Folks, told BuzzFeed on Saturday:
When we report that somebody’s going to get indicted, it happens. We have sources in the grand jury process. We never wrote that there was going to be an indictment.
We don’t make mistakes like this idiot -- this clown.
One could also argue that the incident is a great example of how unchecked rumors against Republicans, such as Harry Reid's false claim that Mitt Romney paid no income taxes, can spread rapidly within the liberal press.