A Tale of Two Media Outlets Getting Punked

This American Life has a lot more regard for its audience than Breitbart.com, where the standards are a disgrace.

Breitbart.com's late founder used to trot out an alpaca whenever he demanded a correction. Reuters

On the right, it's widely thought that the mainstream media are basically corrupt, disdainful of their audience, and less honest and transparent than the blogs and websites conservatives built as an alternative. Anyone who believes that would do well to reflect on the events of the last week. In a major screw up, This American Life, the normally exceptional public-radio program, broadcast what it didn't know was a fabricated story after being lied to by one of its contributors during the fact-checking process and failing to track down the translator he used while reporting in China. When the inaccuracies came to their attention, the show was completely transparent about what happened and dedicated its next hour-long episode to explaining it all to their listeners.

In a separate incident, it came to light that Jason Mattera, a conservative journalist, uploaded to YouTube what purported to be an ambush interview with U2 frontman Bono. Unbeknownst to him, it was a Bono impersonator. This is obviously an embarrassing mistake, but one made without malice. Having published an item that included the video, Breitbart.com could've apologized to its readers, explained what happened, and returned to dredging up decades-old photos of President Obama hugging people. As it turns out, however, the right-wing site has neither the standards nor the respect for its audience of the mainstream media sites it so often pillories.

Here's the editor's note it posted to address the story:

bono editors note.jpg

Of course, there's no way to get away with this sort of vague nonsense on the Web, as comments below the item attests:

breitbart comments.jpg

A Pravda comparison. Ouch.

And yet, reached by Joe Coscarelli, here's what Pollak had to say:

"We went through a vetting process on this and appropriate questions were raised and appropriate answers were given," Breitbart.com editor Joel Pollack [sic] assured us this afternoon by phone. "But the videographer then asked us to take it down, so we did." But Pollak said he would "neither confirm nor deny" that mistaken identity was the reason for the scrubbing. 

For the vast majority of Atlantic readers, it isn't news that Breitbart.com isn't to be trusted, or that many of the sites lumped into its critiques of the mainstream media show far more respect for their audience, but this is a pretty stark example for conservatives to reflect on. This wasn't a misstep in the middle of a media firestorm, just a blatant decision to try to hide from readers what happened. The mistake would've caused minimal, fleeting embarrassment, had it been acknowledged, as Glenn Beck's site The Blaze proved with its post. Now there's yet another reason for Breitbart.com readers to wonder, what else aren't they telling me? And why am I so angry at the MSM when I patronize websites with less commitment to telling them the whole truth?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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