“Why is the National Enquirer wasting its shred of credibility on this Obama story?” A good question, asked by a good online reporter, Glynnis MacNicol, at what normally is a quite entertaining site, especially for media and political junkies like me (Mediaite.com). But the article that follows is so packed with irony, I half expected it to end with the words “ways out!” or “psych!” MacNicol skewers the Enquirer for “seriously shady sourcing,” and for apparently getting so drunk on their John Edwards and Tiger Woods Kool-Aid, they pushed a shaky Obama “scandal” bag just for the pageviews. (They knew Drudge wouldn’t be able to resist, you see.) And she does something that the original reporter, Frances Martel, failed to do — contacting the Enquirer to ask some follow-up questions about their story, rather than simply swooning over it just because Drudge picked it up. Good for her. But what MacNicol neither asks, nor answers, is why in God’s name Mediaite took the very same bait … and presumably for the same reason: the hits.
Mediaite apparently values its credibility, based on the no fewer that four follow-ups (one here and one here, plus the two mentioned in this post,) to a weekend post about a story even the editors apparently don’t believe to be proper journalism. Another of its perfectly good reporters, Tommy Christopher, has also penned a lengthy “lessons learned” piece in which he explains how he would have covered, or ignored, the Enquirer story had he been on duty this past weekend, and drawing a gentle contrast with Martel. Christopher writes that:
See, there are two kinds of Enquirer stories: 1) the ones that try to make a dollar out of fifteen cents using crummy sourcing and weaselly, sensational reporting, and 2) the Edwards story. The media was right to be skeptical about the Edwards story, given the Enquirer’s well-earned reputation. Where they slipped up was not actually reading it.
There were named sources, photographs, and solid reporting on the Edwards story that should have at least made other news organizations take a closer look, and do some reporting of their own.
And as for the significance of Drudge:
… the fact that Matt Drudge promoted this story does have a narrow, though significant, amount of news value, particularly for a media website. In fact, it provides a wonderful opportunity to create a more educated news consumer.
Matt Drudge is a very powerful media figure, capable of drawing white-hot attention to any story, but he is not a journalist, nor does he claim to be one. As such, he doesn’t claim the responsibilities of a journalist. As Chuck Todd pointed out, it is the job of responsible journalists to exercise appropriate skepticism, to show restraint, even when it could be profitable not to do so.
And therein lies the point. First off, I’m not sure how Mediaite posting the story at the top of its homepage (just as Drudge did) “created a more educated news consumer.” What it did, was cause this educated news consumer to question whether Mediaite, which again, purports to be a media analysis site employing actual reporters, not just some sensationalist link-tabloid a-la Gawker, has any interest in doing “the job of responsible journalists to exercise skepticism, [and] to show restraint, even when it could be profitable not to do so.” In the case of this story, Mediaite failed, epically. (Noted that Mr. Christopher feels that I’m mischaracterizing what he said on this point. I’m not sure how, but that should be noted.)
And it failed, not least of which because, as I laid out in this post, the “reporter” who posted the initial story, then the apparently inaccurate update (The Enquirer claims it has not retracted any of its story) believed (and for all we know still believes) the story – not the idea of reporting the story, as editor Colby Hall tried to explain, because newsrooms are hooked on Drudge so anything he links to is news, and not the notion that any story that gets the blogs churning is worthy of repeating on a media website. No, Frances Martel, BELIEVES THE SUBSTANCE OF THE ENQUIRER STORY, and said as much on her Twitter page, where she tweeted that “it’s pretty clear he (President Obama) strayed in 2004 but Michelle forgave him. Unclear whether this cheating is new.”
That’s not analysis. That’s not reporting on the media zeitgeist. That’s not paying unto Drudge the homage he’s due as the assignment editor to lazy reporters everywhere. That’s “reporter” Frances Martel buying, hook, line and sinker, a National Enquirer story that if true, would be damaging to the president of the United States, because she wishes to, and then regurgitating its contents on Mediaite.com as if it’s a real scoop. Only when the backlash began did Frances and her editor, Colby Hall, begin back peddling, throwing the onus for their breaking news headline gone wrong onto Matt Drudge’s questionable shoulders.
And that, inevitably, brings us to Martel’s background, also described in that previous post. She is, to put it kindly, a right winger. From her college days, which ended just a year ago, she appears to be not just any right winger, but rather a zealous, hyperbolic activist whose goal is not just to disagree with “the left,” but to take it on in the most colorful way she can. Why else would she style herself “the Ann Coulter of the class of 2009?”
I can understand why a right winger (which Mr. Hall confirmed to me in an email that Frances Martel is, though he said she’s more of a Libertarian — like Glenn Beck?) would want to believe a story that’s potentially harmful to Obama, who is the boogeyman to people like Martel. What I don’t get is why any editor in any newsroom — even an online newsroom — would let her sink their credibility by indulging her right wing fantasies on their website. And in all honesty, what I found myself asking this weekend was: “why isMediaite wasting its credibility on this Obama story…?”
Oh, right. For the hits.
UPDATE: Frances commiserates with Breitbart about the perils of being “even minimally observant about Dem political leaders.” Yes, it is sad when reprinting tabloid garbage just to smear the president because he’s a Democrat gets you noticed…
UPDATE 2: Media Matters has more on Mediaite’s “if Drudge links it, it is news” belief system. In fairness to Mediaite, they’re far from the only people in the news business who believe that…
UPDATE 3: One more from Mediaite, where Jamison Foser deconstructs Martel’s basic writing and journalistic ability, and that of her editor, Colby Hall… maybe the problem, says Foser, is that she didn’t really understand the story she was writing about? I personally don’t agree with that. I think Martel very much understood what she was writing about, and wanted, very much, for it to be true.