There’s a warning that generations of newspaper editors have given to young reporters: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
That cautionary principle is sound. Responsible journalists are committed to accuracy. Everything you hear isn’t true — even in court, witnesses’ memories can play tricks — and the job is to find and report the facts.
Which is what New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman was trying to do when he inadvertently helped create the phony rumor that Sen. Chuck Hagel had taken money from a nonexistent group called “Friends of Hamas.”
Friedman was trying to check out whether Hagel, the nominee for secretary of defense, had received speaking fees from controversial organizations. He jokingly — jokingly, mind you — asked a Senate aide if there were any evidence of payment from groups like the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France” or “Friends of Hamas.”
Those names were outrageous and linked to terrorist groups, Freidman explained later, so he thought “no one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.”
Yet in today’s highly politicized, agenda-driven atmosphere on Capitol Hill, and the shoot-first-ask-questions-later world of Internet bloggers and 24-hour radio and cable TV talk, the joke became a rumor and then a leak and then a website headline and finally fodder for cable commentators.
But they were wrong.
The website and cable talkers failed to check out their “information,” besmirched a Cabinet nominee’s reputation and ignored another cautionary warning old editors give young reporters: Get it first, but first get it right.