Rolling Stone magazine recently completely retracted a story purporting to delve into an incident of gang-rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. The story was so devoid of basic journalistic processes and fact-checking that it is destined to go down as an object lesson in journalism schools for years to come.
Other incidents, less egregious but still dubious, popped up in the last few days.
Social media was ablaze last week over news that the federal government was preparing to criminalize critics of Israel, specifically by applying Canada’s hate laws against supporters of BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
Advocates of free speech were up in arms – and rightly so. BDS is a movement that seeks the destruction of the state of Israel, in the guise of a one-state solution, and is discriminatory in its targeting of products, people and ideas based on their national origin. It is the contemporary equivalent of book-burning. It is deserving of scorn and contempt. But it is not deserving of legal prohibition in a country that respects free expression.
As it turns out, the very idea that Canada was about to criminalize the BDS movement and its supporters was fabricated almost from full cloth by CBC reporter Neil Macdonald. Macdonald, who has been the subject of years of complaints for anti-Israel bias for his reporting from the Middle East and Washington, had a brief (and somewhat snarky) email exchange with a spokesperson for Canada’s department of public safety.
The exchange began because Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney, in a speech to the United Nations, promised to take a “zero tolerance” approach to those who boycott Israel. Macdonald demanded clarification of what “zero tolerance” meant.
In the email exchange, the spokesperson cites hate speech legislation, as well as laws around mischief involving religious buildings, and she noted the security infrastructure program that funds communities, such as the Jewish community, to improve security in communal buildings.
The response from the government was probably inadequate and Macdonald should have gotten a comment directly from the minister explaining what he meant by “zero tolerance,” and not used boilerplate from a civil servant (something he himself acknowledged in his exchange). Instead, he went ahead with an inflammatory story that was more conjecture than news, but which had the effect of rousing the reliably tetchy anti-Israel crowds.
This, too, could be an object lesson for future (and current) journalists. As could a story more visible than either of these: the story that Pope Francis declared Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an “angel of peace.”
The story of the old terrorist being dubbed an “angel of peace” by the head of Roman Catholicism alarmed those of us who have been impressed with Francis’ approach to world affairs. However, the fault did not lie with the pontiff but with the media.
What Francis said was that Abbas could be an angel of peace – if he made peace with Israel. What the Pope said to Abbas – “May you be an angel of peace” – is a far different thing than what was reported. It was a wish, not a declaration. And it is a wish we could not more heartily share.
Journalism struggles today in the changing landscape of media, tighter budgets, fewer staff doing more tasks – we understand all this. But when some of this country’s and the world’s leading voices of reporting get things so wrong, the institution of journalism suffers even more.
In a world where information (and misinformation) has never been so plentiful, what readers really need are the critical tools to discern fact from fiction and half-truths. In a world of 140-character attention spans, though, do we hope for too much?