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"Buyer Beware" Applies In New Media World

As the journalism world continues to try and figure out what to think of the USA Today report on the NSA telephone database, there are some stark reminders that, more than ever, consumers of information and news are well advised to follow the old "buyer beware" rule of thumb.

Last week's report from the National Post's Web site about a supposed Iranian law that would require Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims in that country to wear identifying "badges" was just the latest example of a story that sped around the world before being verified in any meaningful way. The Canadian paper's report drew rebukes from members of Congress in the United States and the Prime Minister of Canada, once again proving the old saw that a lie can make it around the world before the truth gets its boots on. Here's how the AP cleared things up over the weekend:

On Friday, a Canadian newspaper, The National Post, quoting Iranian exiles, said the law would force Jews, Christians and other religious minorities to wear special patches of colored cloth to distinguish them from Muslims. The report drew a condemnation from the United States, which said such a law would carry "clear echoes of Germany under Hitler."

A copy of the draft law obtained by The Associated Press made no mention of religious minorities or any requirement of special attire for them, and the Post later posted an article on its Web site backing off the report.

Instead, the draft law is aimed at encouraging more traditional dress among Muslims, particularly women. An attempt at reigning in some of the more liberal, Western-leaning changes in Iran's society is newsworthy in and of itself. But it's not quite the rise of some Fourth Reich that it seemed for a time in the wake of the initial story.

Last week saw another story, spread throughout the Web, that now appears to wholly untrue. The report, appearing on Truthout.org, claimed that White House adviser Karl Rove had been indicted by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and had been given 24 hours before announcing it publicly. Of course, that 24-hour deadline has passed some eight times since the story first appeared, its particulars have been flatly denied by principles named in the story and it has been shot down by a variety of outlets, including CBS News. Here's how Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz relays the tale today:

The claim that President Bush's top political strategist had been indicted in the CIA leak investigation was written by a journalist who has battled drug addiction and mental illness and been convicted of grand larceny. That didn't stop more than 35 reporters -- from all the major newspapers, networks and newsmagazines -- from calling [Rove attorney Robert] Luskin or Rove's spokesman, Mark Corallo, to check it out.

The reports appeared on the liberal Web site Truthout.org, run by Marc Ash, a former advertising man and fashion photographer in California. Jason Leopold, the author of the stories, directed inquiries to Ash, who says that "we stand by the story. We have multiple points of independent confirmation of what we originally reported. Our problem is, the prosecutor's office is under no obligation to go public."

Leopold acknowledges in a new book, "News Junkie," that he is a past liar, convicted felon and former alcoholic and cocaine addict. An earlier version of the book was canceled by publisher Rowman & Littlefield last year.

Even ten years ago, false stories, rumors and speculation disguised as knowledge operated in a world of hushed tones, being passed from individual to individual. If a lie was making its way around the world, it at least wasn't being heard world-wide. The Internet has changed all that. Today, not only can even the most outrageous stories be instantly available to millions of people, they are susceptible to different interpretations. One man's suggested dress code can become another's Nazi-like pogrom.

It's easy enough to scoff and wave off anything that hits the Internet as unreliable and scurrilous. But to do so ignores the reality of the way information is gathered, presented and absorbed in today's world. No longer are news consumers waiting for The New York Times to verify the stories they tell around the water cooler. They are increasingly getting their news from the Web, talk radio and blogs. And that information – whether it's spot-on accurate, partially true or wholly false – is making its way around the world in an instant, before traditional media outlets can get their boots on.

The fact we're still not sure what exactly to believe about stories like the USA Today database exclusive doesn't help clear up the picture for news consumers either. In the wake of a series of journalistic scandals – Jason Blair, Memogate, Judy Miller and many others – it's understandable why, in many quarters, the MSM is seen as no more reliable than many blogs or Web sites. All good reasons to question any story you come across. And all good reasons for news organizations to be more transparent and open with readers -- and harder on ourselves -- than ever.

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