Earlier this month, a rumor began to take hold that President Obama wants to ban fishing.
The claim was spurred by a column from Robert Montgomery of ESPN Outdoors that appeared on ESPN.com. It suggested that the Obama administration has finished the process of taking public input "for a federal strategy that could prohibit U.S. citizens from fishing the nation's oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes, and even inland waters."
(The column was later updated to add a qualifier that the strategy would only ban fishing in "some of" those locations.)
As the sports blog Deadspin and the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters documented, the claim led to a flurry of headlines in the conservative media. One read, "Obama's Latest Assault on Freedom - New Regulations Will Ban Sport Fishing," while another said, "Obama: The Will Of The People Be Damned - I'LL Decide Who Can Go Fishing."
The claim was featured on The Drudge Report and Fox Nation Web sites as well as Michelle Malkin's popular conservative blog. It was also pushed by conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News' Glenn Beck.
Yet the ESPN report was overheated -- at best. In response to the rumors, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made clear that there are no plans to stop Americans from fishing.
What had happened is that a task force had released interim reports discussing goals for managing America's waterways. The task force's efforts could eventually lead to guidelines focused primarily on commercial (not recreational) fishing policy. There could be recommendations for managing recreational fishing, but there has been no talk of a ban.
The interim reports "do not establish any restrictions on recreational fishing or on public access," said a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality quoted in a Greenwire/New York Times story on the rumors.
But the ESPN report nonetheless spread widely in conservative media circles, leading one fishing columnist to dub it "the worst example of outdoor sports reporting in the history of America."
"As a sportsman who covers fisheries management and politics I do think there are many issues surrounding the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and its eventual recommendations that all fishermen should be aware of and concerned about," wrote Jeffrey Weeks. "But to go from concern to suggesting that President Obama is about to ban fishing in America is the most absurd and irresponsible thing I have ever seen a major news outlet publish.
"There is not even a remote possibility that a standing president of the United States will outlaw fishing in America," he added.
In response to the uproar, ESPNOutdoors.com Executive Editor Steve Bowman posted a note that "we made several errors in the editing and presentation" of the column. He said the piece should have been labeled as opinion, not news, and said that it "was not properly balanced and failed to represent contrary points of view."
A link to that editor's note is now posted at the top of the column with a reference to "concerns" about its content.
One conservative blogger seemed to understand the factors at play in the response to the piece.
"I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that [President Obama] will not, in fact, ban fishing," wrote Hot Air's Allahpundit, "but the meta-narrative is so irresistible -- elitist President Arugula coming to grab therods and reels! -- that it simply must be blogged."