Anatomy of a falsity

Pressed for time today, I intend only to update a topic. This week, some readers got angry when I observed in my Sunday print column that Fox News "has fanned so many false rumors." How dare I suggest such a thing, they said. They challenged me to name even one example.

Most of these readers appear to hail from the great state of Montana (thank you, Billings Gazette), so perhaps there is something in the local water that makes them oblivious to the obvious. Their challenge was not exactly a brain-teaser, being roughly equivalent to the addition of two plus two.

There was the false rumor that President Obama was foreign-born, the false rumor that health reform would create "death panels," the false rumor that Obama would create internment camps run by FEMA, the false rumor that he is trying to conduct Mao-style indoctrination of schoolchildren, the false rumor that he was Muslim and/or perhaps a terrorist fellow traveler (remember the "terrorist fist jab?"), the false rumor that the symbol on the back of the dime was a fascist plot hatched by Democrats in 1916...that sort of thing.

And then, just yesterday, another false rumor surfaced.

Along the faux information pipeline (conservative blogs, websites, video aggregates, the usual) word quickly spread that Obama had refused to watch the Tuesday night election returns, preferring instead to switch on HBO and behold himself in the new HBO documentary depicting his '08 campaign.

And naturally the story was hatched on Fox News, starting at 10:15 a.m. With just the right tone of insouciant mockery, Fox host Martha MacCallum reported the following:

"Robert Gibbs, the (Obama) press secretary, has been speaking with some reporters and he was asked, ‘So why didn’t the president watch (the returns) last night?’ And Robert Gibbs said, ‘Well, he was actually watching, you know, the HBO special about his year-long campaign and how it all went.’ So he was watching that last night....We know that Michelle and the girls went to the Miley Cyrus concert last night....So he’s all alone in that big house, right? Nothing to do but sit back and watch – reminisce about the long campaign and watch HBO."

It was a dream Fox story, because it fit the enduring conservative narrative about a self-absorbed dreamer smitten with his own image, preferring to hold a mirror to himself rather than face bad news. Newsbusters, the conservative watchdog group, quickly posted the MacCallum video; so did, the right-wing site, which also passed along the video to YouTube. The usual anonymous bloggers fell into line, one of them titling his (or her) post, "The Narcissist in Chief." Lucianne Goldberg naturally weighed in with her echo. And Rush Limbaugh took the Fox piece and spewed accordingly: "If a documentary could get anal poisoning, this one could. I mean, it's just kiss butt, kiss butt, kiss butt - and here he's watching it!"
Only problem was, the Fox story was dead wrong. Obama watching HBO on election night? Never happened.

Turns out, the actual Robert Gibbs transcript reads as follows: "One thing I should contextualize – the President obviously got updates about the election last night.  He did not watch – as I told some of you – did not watch election returns. I wouldn’t read a ton into that, since he didn’t actually watch election returns when he was running (for president). If you did watch the movie on HBO – we called him and told him he won Iowa. He did not watch election returns."

It's clear what Gibbs was talking about: Obama didn't even watch the TV returns when he broke through in Iowa - as evidenced by the HBO documentary footage. Period.

To Fox News' credit, it did retract its false rumor late yesterday afternoon, once the Gibbs transcript was circulated. White House correspondent Major Garrett went on the air and said he had "misheard Robert Gibbs...My mistake." ( never bothered to post a correction.)

But how is it possible that Garrett could have "misheard" so badly? Gibbs' remarks, and the remarks aired in the original Fox report, aren't even close. It all boils down to this: Garrett (who is widely considered one of the responsible Fox sleuths) thought he heard a frank admission of Obama's narcissim, but clearly didn't take good notes or hoist a digital recorder or ask a press colleague for verification; instead, he rushed the report onto the air, filtered through MacCallum's sarcasm.

The bottom line is, some falsities are simply too good to check. As with so many others, Fox will surely offer us more.