Treating Lies as News

THOMAS OLIPHANT

November 14, 1991|By THOMAS OLIPHANT

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- It's bad enough that Vice President Dan Quayle has been slandered by a comic strip.

What is incomprehensible is that the press has compounded the slander by treating it as news.

The result, on the eve of Campaign '92, is an intriguing glimpse of today's media culture, in which the same standards used in the production of Geraldo Rivera's news-porn can be found in your daily paper.

The fact that the press is being played like a violin by rumor-mongers undercuts its efforts to play character cop and advertising fact-checker in political campaigns; moreover, it undercuts the vital bond of trust between purveyor and consumer that is at the core of the news business' existence.

This latest abuse of journalism's immense power is mind-boggling. What began nine years ago as a lie cooked up and then confessed to by a conniving convict looking for an early release is now being treated in the press as ''an allegation'' that led to the opening of a ''file'' on the vice president at the Drug Enforcement Administration, which was ''covered up'' by the government upon completing its ''investigation,'' until finally ''exposed'' and then ''made public.''

The route this lie took into, of all places, "Doonesbury," and then into the news columns of scores of papers, is all the more astonishing because it had been previously checked and found by at least three news organizations to be both false and concocted.

This is a case where the press, in what the legal boys would call reckless disregard of whether an allegation has merit, did not let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The fact that a convict would tell a tale on a then-U.S. senator is hardly unusual. Like cops, journalists get 10 pounds of junk for every gram of truth over the transom from cons all the time. This one, however, had a good sense of timing, telling the Quayle tale at a time when alleged drug use by congressmen (one of the great non-stories of 1982) was in the news.

As it happened, the DEA checked the guy out, found his story false, and that was that, duly recorded in the kind of file that should never see the light of day except in a police state.

When the con tried to go to the press, he had even less luck. He flunked a lie detector test at the Washington Post, and broke down and confessed his lie during his interview at ''60 Minutes.'' Neither organization aired a syllable of his junk, in keeping with what used to be a simple rule of journalism: Rumors are to be checked out, not publicized.

But that rule is a victim of today's Great American Scandal Machine, which treats rumor and fact indiscriminately, and can't differentiate between a federal agency checking a tip and launching a serious investigation. Not surprisingly, somebody at the DEA began blabbing about Mr. Quayle, and one of the people who heard about it was a writer named Cody Shearer. I've known him for a long time and like him, but that wouldn't stop me from looking out the window if he told me the sun was shining.

Mr. Shearer took the tale to "Doonesbury's" famous author, Garry Trudeau, who swallowed the bait. For those who love irony, the lie is now being spread through "Doonesbury's" Washington Post reporter character, Rick Redfern, whose real-life model, Bob Woodward, was one of the reporters who rejected the original story as false.

That fact, however, has not deterred Mr. Trudeau, Universal Press Syndicate (his distributor), and now the press from something far more sinister even than publicizing a defamatory allegation under the guise of its denial. According to Rick Redfern, the syndicate's editors, and the journalists who played this ''story'' straight, the issue is not whether Mr. Quayle used drugs but whether a DEA file concerning him was covered up to keep the charges from being made public.

You bet it was, and thank God. The raw files of investigative agencies are full of lies and other bits of character assassination.

Only in the informer culture of a Nazi Germany does this stuff get used; sure, leaks happen, but the press' responsibility is to know the difference between a phony story and a real one and to sit on the phony ones.

This is the system that is breaking down in today's scandal culture. A lie that serious reporters wouldn't touch has now made it into the public domain via news coverage of a comic strip. Even George Orwell would be amazed.

Thomas Oliphant is a Boston Globe columnist.

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