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In case you haven’t been paying attention, Donald Trump has once again stirred up a hornet’s nest with one of his tweets, this time concerning the death of Lori Klausutis, an employee of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough. The story in a nutshell is that Klausutis, an otherwise fit young woman of 28, died in Scarborough’s Fort Walton Beach office from a head injury she sustained when passing out due to an undiagnosed heart condition. It has been a favorite topic among conspiracy theorists for almost 20 years.
The medical examiner’s report should have been the end of it. After all, the outcome of the autopsy was perfectly reasonable. But then several things got in the way. One, the medical examiner that made the ruling turned out to be a bit of a crackpot, arrested a decade later for illegally keeping stolen body parts in a South Florida storage facility. Secondly, Scarborough himself hasn’t helped. Here he is joking about the incident on Don Imus’ nationally syndicated radio show while pushing the launch of a show on MSNBC:
That was in 2003. Laughter is a strange reaction from someone who said it was outrageous rumors that caused him to resign his seat in Congress.
The reactions to Trump’s tweet has been predictable enough. But like so many of the other outrages of the Trump era, the anger is either misplaced or counterproductive. Like the political class that wishes to ignore their own complicity in Trump’s rise to the Oval Office, likewise the press wishes to ignore their own complicity in making the truth a rare commodity in the so-called “age of information.” If you spend three years rumor-mongering about Russia collusion theories and the backgrounds of Supreme Court nominees it’s difficult to take your objections to the President’s tweets seriously. In the end the reality of your headline is “Noted Victim of Conspiracy Theories Shares His Own Conspiracy Theories.”
Someone on Twitter framed the situation thusly: There is no difference between a “conspiracy theory” and “fake news.” That, of course, is nonsense. Conspiracy theories are partly based on the experience that the application of the law is too often double-tiered, with one set of rules for ordinary citizens and another for the well-connected. This is universal. Those on the right see privilege born of political power, those on the left see it as being the result of wealth and race.
In that regard, most conspiracy theories are organic, born of curiosity and mistrust, and perpetuated because the ordinary citizen doesn’t have the resources to disprove them. That makes “fake news” ten times worse. It’s not amateur bumbling, it’s professional malpractice. They have the resources and the skill but lack the motivation and therefore the effort to provide the most truthful reporting possible.
All good reporters and the best stories begin with theories and the simple question, “What if…” It’s the ability to follow through and the willingness to be convinced that dead ends aren’t wasted that makes a good journalist.
But there is also a basic flaw in journalism that needs to be addressed: the two source rule. In an era where elements of the Federal Government are actively trying to undermine and overturn the results of elections the standard for printing or broadcasting, an item needs to be higher than that. As the folks at Fusion GPS demonstrated, finding two or more people to tell the same lie in order to get that lie into the papers and on-air is an awfully easy thing to accomplish.
Fundamentally, a functioning press would be able to able to throttle conspiracy theories without breaking a sweat. But that takes trust from the public-at-large, something that the profession of journalism has willingly abandoned in the pursuance of political goals.Published in