Commentary: Regarding Roger Ailes, the truth does matter

The Miami HeraldMarch 9, 2011 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

A few words about three words.

Said words came from one Barry Ritholtz, a financial analyst, author and TV commentator who, according to his website, has contributed commentary on matters monetary to the whole alphabet soup of TV news: CNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, PBS, Fox, MSNBC, and C/SPAN.

Ritholtz also has a blog and it was there that he recently broke what seemed a major news story: “Roger Ailes To Be Indicted.” Ailes, as you may know, is the controversial chairman of Fox News.

The New York Times, citing papers filed in a lawsuit, had reported that Ailes stood accused of telling publishing potentate Judith Regan to lie to federal investigators vetting former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik when he was nominated in 2004 to head the Department of Homeland Security. Kerik’s nomination ended in scandal; he is serving a four-year sentence on eight felony convictions, including tax fraud.

Ritholtz took the story significantly further than the Times did. Citing “someone I spoke with,” he reported that Ailes was facing not just an accusation, but a federal indictment. “You read it here first,” he crowed.

The sensational story ricocheted all over the Internet. But was it true?

Salon.com questioned Ritholtz on his source, whom he would identify only as an older man, “an upper East Side Democrat” he found himself sitting next to at an airport. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the source’s credibility, but Ritholtz was unfazed.

Salon quotes him as saying, “If it’s true we’ll find out. If it’s not, no big deal.”

And here, let us define what the point is not. It is not the likeability or lack thereof, of Roger Ailes. It is not the bias of the supposed news organization he runs. It is not even the accuracy of Ritholtz’s report. It is, rather, those three words: “no big deal.”

Lord, where is Walter Cronkite when you need him?

Those who work in or depend upon mainstream media, traditional media, legacy media — choose your preferred synonym for “old’’ — are frequently and forcefully reminded that technology has changed the rules, broken the model. What was once a monologue is now a dialogue, the gathering and dissemination of news has become a communal activity. We are, goes the mantra, all journalists now.

Fine. Wonderful. Whatever.

But: if we are all journalists, we all ought to be governed by journalism’s most sacred directive. Meaning accuracy. Get the facts straight.

One encounters little fealty to that directive in surveying the landscape of new media, overrun as it is by true believers for whom accuracy is subordinate to ideology and facts useful only to the degree they can be bent, shaped or outright disregarded in service to that ideology. The result, as many have noted, is a political discourse distinguished by increasing incoherence and intellectual incontinence, an empty shouting match better suited to a fifth grade schoolyard than to adults analyzing the great issues of the day.

Even by that standard, Ritholtz’s breezy kiss-off to accuracy represents a minor milestone. He is not, after all, the proverbial blogger working in his pajamas from his mother’s basement. Rather, he is an accomplished, authoritative man. Yet even he apparently feels no particular obligation to be factual.

No big deal?

One can imagine a libel lawyer in the employ of Roger Ailes someday having a field day with that quote. Meantime, let the rest of us regard it as a signpost on the road toward America’s secession from objective reality. What is at stake is nothing less than our ability to know. From that springs our ability to process, extrapolate, debate, reason, conclude. We are losing those things.

And that’s a very big deal, indeed.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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