When will a reporter, especially one for the mainstream media, write: “He lied. Here’s the truth.”? I long for the day and never more than this week. For two consecutive days, NPR reported on the fallout about Rush Limbaugh’s comments about the Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. In both instances reporter David Folkenflik described what Limbaugh said but never pointed out that he repeatedly misrepresented the testimony Fluke made to a U.S. House committee. This wasn’t truth open to interpretation. The testimony was public and unambiguous: in advocating mandatory insurance coverage for contraception, she described a lesbian friend who needed birth control pills to treat a serious medical problem. Yet Limbaugh vilified Fluke for what he claimed was the nature of her sex life and her desire to have the government pay for her sexual encounters. The falsity was breathtaking.
Reporters like Folkenflik should revel in situations in which the facts are beyond dispute and precisely documented. There was no nuance, no differing eyewitness accounts of Fluke’s testimony. The truth is that Limbaugh blatantly lied and did so repeatedly. Reporting this unassailable fact would have been as courageous as reporting that the sun always rises in the east. Instead Folkenflik only detailed the defamatory words Limbaugh used and the ensuing controversy — a worthy topic but incomplete story. Sandra Fluke and NPR listeners like me deserved better.
I’m picking on Folkenflik, a highly regarded and award-winning journalist, when in fact his lapse is epidemic in a once-proud profession. The recent flap over whether journalists should be “truth vigilantes” shows just how bad things have become. The co-author of a book about polarization in American politics, Jonathan Weiler, recently explored the issue of reporting the truth:
… mealy-mouthed genuflections toward ‘balance’ and ‘objectivity’ in the form of he-said, she-said reporting have substituted for actual rigorous investigation of politicians’ claims.
When this is the operative practice, Weiler wrote, “the incentive to lie is clear.” Now if only the truth about such lies will be told loud and clear.