When local media fail to do their jobs by checking facts, corroborating sources, or simply asking follow-up questions as they did in Sioux Falls, SD, following a bomb scare, they're the ones creating "fake news."
Late last Tuesday night, in a quiet corner of the quiet town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, police and county law enforcement cars blocked off the end of a street and evacuated the neighbors. Upon executing a routine search warrant following up on a string of robberies in a nearby town, cops happened upon a large stash of troubling materials: Alongside the stolen goods from local hardware stores were a number of materials used to make bombs. Some devices had already been put together, and the Sioux Falls Police Department had to remotely detonate one.
Along with the materials found in Mark Einerwold’s apartment was what police officials referred to as an “AntiFa Jacket.” In a daily briefing to the press the next day, Minnehaha County Sheriff Spokesman, Jason Gearman, commented that they had found a number of materials, including this jacket, which he said made them suspect Einerwold was connected to what he called “a violent group,” that was involved in “protests out in Berkeley.”
That was all the press needed to run with it. Local journalists, particularly local CBS affiliate Keloland ran with the story and quoted Gearman at length, connecting Antifa to violence in Portland and in Charlottesville. The other two competing news outfits in the city simply repeated the news, mentioning the Antifa jacket in their stories as well.
And that is how they managed to turn a local news story into a national campaign against Antifa. Right-wing firebrand and self-described “investigative journalist” Mike Cernovich tweeted the story (and then later deleted it), alongside Project Veritas alum Laura Loomer. InfoWars Editor Paul Joseph Watson used the story as a leaping off point for an entire thread about so-called Antifa violence. A new narrative quickly developed: Here was yet another example of the extreme left engaging in violence to get what they wanted.
The problem, however, is that the narrative is completely wrong. None of the local TV news organizations delved further into the story. They all simply took the police at their word, and acted as transcribers of the news rather than journalists. This isn’t unique to Smalltown, South Dakota, either. In cities across the United States, journalists have taken corporations, law enforcement, and public officials essentially at their word.
The reluctance to fact-check Donald Trump on the spot during the campaign, the quick spread of rumors as facts (e.g., the controversy over whether Trump removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr., upon entering office, or when liberal media ran with the idea that the U.S. government was “losing” migrant children, muddying the waters of a complex human-rights story), and local outlets taking police spokespeople at face value has resulted in the press contributing to its own demise. With a lack of due diligence, reliable fact-checking, and shrinking newsrooms, the press are contributing to their own demise as beacons of free speech and a check on authoritarianism.
Had the CBS affiliate bothered to do actual reporting, as the area newspaper did, they would’ve realized that the police proclamations of the suspect as being “Antifa” and “Leftist” are actually wrong. The Argus Leader, a Tri-State area newspaper based in Sioux Falls that covers news in South Dakota, southwest Minnesota, and northwest Iowa, actually looked into Einerwold’s social media and spoke to his family. Turns out, Einerwold has nothing to do with Antifa; he runs a Facebook page on gun rights called “Defend the 2nd Protect the Constitution,” which Einerwold has used as a ground for personal rants and grievances against, you guessed it, the radical left. On June 18, one month before his arrest, he wrote about how everyone should have concerns about Black Lives Matter and Antifa:
“I know what a group of unorganized people can do, our college campuses are teaching this across America, white privilege, population control, when people become old and not productive, they no longer need resources, promote more abortions, unconscious bias, micro agression [sic] …”
On June 12, he shared a video from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. A day earlier, he wrote about how to debate “liberals” or “leftists.” On his personal Facebook page, he shared items from his “Defend the 2nd” page, alongside critiques about women not honoring men as the head of the household, and memes from right-wing Facebook pages.
I should say it took me less than a minute to find Einerwold’s Facebook page and to track down the page he runs, even without the help of the Argus Leader’s interview from his brother. It was literally the least bit of research and due diligence a journalist could do.
When local TV news decided to run with the Antifa angle, they decided to follow exactly what the police reported without question, without actually checking the facts. If they had done any of their own reporting, they’d have seen that Einerwold wasn’t in any way associated with Antifa, and that the man giving them a report about Antifa’s alleged violence is a conservative with an affection for Ted Nugent, and a reader of “Mike’s Corner,” a far-right conservative blog that shares memes like this one:
In a world where public officials at the highest levels routinely lie outright to the press, insisting crowd sizes are larger than they actually were, that the president didn’t tweet what we all know he tweeted, and that everything is fine and dandy, journalists have an even more important duty to the facts. Reporting the official story without question only serves to help those in power, giving them the benefit of the doubt where there shouldn’t be, and trusting the word of those who have a vested interest in one story over another.
“Fake news” is often not the result of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive, but a failure on the part of the press to report given statements as fact with little to no investigation. Media that simply reports what authorities said, that refuse to check them on it for fear of loss of access, and who are all too happy to act as transcriptionists instead of reporters all contribute to a world in which not trusting the press seems like a completely reasonable option. Bad, lazy “journalism” destroys the capabilities of a free press, and undermines public trust in the fourth estate.
We live in an age where the White House Press Secretary can stand in front of a room full of reporters and straight up lie about what the president said merely hours earlier. If journalists—especially at the local level—aren’t willing to do even the basic due diligence, how can we trust when they report on national stories? With media monopolies already threatening the independence of local TV stations, local journalists don’t really need to help the misinformation along by refusing to do their jobs.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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