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Media Critics Compound Journalism’s Failure On Michele Bachmann HPV Vaccine Claims

Earlier this week, we reported the failure of several trained journalists to challenge Rep. Michele Bachmann‘s dangerously irresponsible claims about the HPV vaccine, and while Bachmann’s claims eventually became big news, attended by fact-checking segments of varying quality, the journalists who allowed her to ring that bell got off scot-free. Reliable SourcesHoward Kurtz weighed in on the subject Sunday morning, but even his criticism amounted to little more than a soothing wrist massage.

Earlier this week, within a 24 hour period, at least three different mainstream journalists allow Rep. Michele Bachmann to claim that the HPV vaccine is “dangerous,” and that it might cause “mental retardation,” without challenging her, or notifying their audiences (of millions) that the vaccine is safe. First, Wolf Blitzer let it sail by during Monday night’s CNN/Tea Party debate, then CNN’s John King followed suit during a post-debate interview, and The Today Show‘s Matt Lauer skated by it Tuesday morning.

Throughout the rest of the week, cable news outlets ran fact-check segments which were strongly (and correctly) critical of Bachmann, but even some of them left incorrect perceptions about the HPV vaccine, presenting the completely unanimous weight of scientific evidence alongside anecdotal hysteria, as if a real controversy over the vaccine existed.

No one bothered to call out the journalists (most outrageously, Matt Lauer) who allowed Bachmann to make these statements, without challenge. These journalists failed their most important function, to act in the public’s interest.

After I wrote my column, I received some pushback from colleagues who thought it was unreasonable to expect an interviewer to fact-check on the fly. They miss the point. This isn’t about establishing some new journalistic standard whereby interviewers must parry political BS like microphone-wielding Jedi. It’s about making sure that millions of people don’t hear, unchallenged, a false claim that could kill them. If President Obama told Matt Lauer that seatbelts cause mental retardation, I expect that comment would have been flagged in some way. If Sarah Palin said that old refrigerators make a great hide-and-seek spot, I bet even Sean Hannity would do a spit-take and say, “Excuse me?”

That’s why I was looking forward to Reliable Sources this week, because this failure is right in Howard Kurtz’s wheelhouse. While he identified several key points in this story, the overall critique was deeply disappointing.

First of all, a failure of this magnitude deserves its own segment, but Kurtz sandwiches it in the middle of a broader Perry v. Bachmann debate. He correctly notes that Lauer’s failure (and Wolf Blitzer’s, and John King’s) was fueled by the shiny-object distraction of the Perry/Bachmann food fight. The New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny points out that “in the moment, it looked great for Congresswoman Bachmann,” but it didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

It only looked great in the moment, though, because Wolf Blitzer failed to follow up at the debate. Colleagues who argue that Wolf deserves a heat-of-the-moment pass ought to go back and watch the debate, all of them, in fact. When it comes time to make candidates confront each other about past quotes regarding their onstage rivals, the moderators are consistently armed with context to make their followups sizzle. This is not a question of competence, it’s a question of priorities.

Bachmann was wrong to make those claims, to be sure. For what it’s worth, her heart was probably in the right place, she probably really believes what she’s saying, and thinks she’s helping young girls. Nobody raises a Major League Baseball roster’s worth of foster children if they don’t care about kids. I don’t know if this episode will deter her from this behavior in the future, but I do know that the media eventually meted out some hefty consequences to her over it.

The same cannot be said of Lauer & co., who have been given a total pass by their brethren. While Kurtz deserves some credit for bringing it up at all, there’s nothing in this segment that will keep this from happening again, with these, or other, journalists. In a case where media criticism could have mattered in a more direct way than usual, it has compounded journalism’s failure here by failing to adequately penalize it.

This story also illustrates a growing problem with media reporting, especially on TV news personalities. We reached out for comment from all of the journalists in our original story, but were stymied by each network’s PR department. That’s no knock on those PR professionals, who are just doing their jobs, but news organizations should examine whether the practice of buffering their journalists in this way is consistent with good journalism. Network PR departments have a raft of non-journalism priorities to consider, which makes them ill-suited, from a journalism standpoint, to decide when, if, or how a journalist responds to questions from other journalists. If a buffer is necessary, it should be in the form of an editor, or some other journalism professional.

Here’s the clip, from CNN’s Reliable Sources:


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