MONDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2022
Excitement replaces old order: Our report from Friday afternoon is now officially quaint.
At issue was a set of strange claims about The National Butterfly Center, which really does exist. At issue was a basic question:
How should a major news org—in this instance, the Washington Post—refer to such peculiar claims? What would be a journalistically accurate way of describing such claims?
In its headline, the Post had called the claims "false," and that's what they presumably are. At one or two points, the Post also referred to these claims as "baseless."
But along the way, the Post also cited the local police chief. This is what he was said to have said about these inflammatory claims:
IATI (2/4/22): Mission Police Chief Robert Dominguez said there was no evidence that the butterfly center was involved in any form of trafficking. The U.S. Border Patrol did not immediately respond to a message.
According to the local chief, there's "no evidence" in support of these claims. On that basis, we asked a question which now seems quaint:
If there's no evidence in support of a claim, should a major news org refer to the claim as "false?"
Yesterday morning, along came the New York Times to render this question quaint. On the front page of its Sunday editions, the Times ran a lengthy report about this same unfortunate topic.
How did the New York Times decide to refer to these claims? Online, the Times report begins as shown, exciting headline included:
How a Butterfly Refuge at the Texas Border Became the Target of Far-Right Lies
For nearly two decades, the National Butterfly Center has provided a place of wonder along the banks of the Rio Grande, attracting curious visitors and nature enthusiasts from around the country to watch delicate creatures like the xami hairstreak float over flowers and alight on logs.
Among those who trade in outlandish right-wing conspiracies online, though, the center is said to be something else: a cover for human smuggling, sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. The lies have spread so widely in recent years that the center is now receiving visitors with no interest in butterflies at all.
Last month, a Republican congressional candidate from Virginia came to the center looking for a site of human smugglers and had a physical altercation with its director. Days later, a man from an upstart media organization associated with Steve Bannon recorded a video outside the center’s gates, claiming “credible threats of the cartels trafficking children through the butterfly center.” To make his point, he held up a tiny shoe.
In a country where many believe that Satan-worshiping pedophiles run the government and the resurrection of John F. Kennedy Jr. will restore a Trump presidency, the butterfly center has become the latest unlikely victim of wild misinformation and outright lies spreading rapidly online. It has become a borderland version of Comet Ping Pong, the Washington pizzeria that became the center of the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed that Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring in the restaurant. That lie spread so far that it prompted a North Carolina man to drive to the pizzeria and fire an assault rifle inside.
Forget about the quaint distinctions between "baseless," "unfounded" and "false." The New York Times came along and went straight to the L-bomb: "lies."
Also, to outright lies. Most thrillingly, to far-right lies.
That said, are the people spreading these outlandish theories actually dealing in "lies?" In a world where large numbers of people believe all sorts of outlandish claims, should the outlandish claims in question be described as "lies?"
Until recently, major journalist would have thought long and hard about such designations. Today, the L-bomb spreads excitement within our tribe, and so it goes straight to page A1 in the New York Times' Sunday editions.
We won't bother explaining the difference between an unfounded claim and a lie. We certainly won't waste our time explaining the way this distinction actually matters in the grand scheme of things.
For today, we'll only tell you this:
It didn't do so with complete success, but the Washington Post was trying to play by an older set of (sound) journalistic rules.
Two days later, playing catch-up, the New York Times busted through those old rules. It gave us the thrill we currently like. This represents a substantial change in the basic journalistic order.
Should crazy, unfounded claims be referred to as "lies?"
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. As Freud himself most famously said, "Sometimes a crazy, unfounded claim is just a crazy, unfounded claim."
A crazy claim isn't always a lie. So spoke an older, more careful, more intelligent journalistic order.
And yes, it actually makes a difference—though we've given up on the pointless task of explaining why.
Upon further reflection, a hint: Consider two different statements:
"Donald J. Trump told a lie."
Those are so-called fighting words. Tribal schisms widen.
"Donald J. Trump has never offered any evidence in support of his claim."
Those words create a substantially different dynamic. They start to create the possibility of peeling some voters away.