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Cleveland: The Onion and News Media on Truth and Fiction

Many of you are no doubt familiar with a website called The Onion, which produces satirical, often hilarious, “news” stories. I have no problem with The Onion. It sometimes makes me laugh.

Our problem these days is differentiating between The Onion and the countless news outlets, which are serving up ever-increasing volumes of blather and babble that sometimes read like satire but are not.

Exhibit A: An Al Jazeera report last weekend that purported Peyton Manning used HGH, a hormone banned by the NFL, to recover from a career threatening neck injury in 2011.

The Al Jazeera report read just like something from The Onion.

The report was named, get this: The Dark Side. It is based on information from a source named, and I kid you not, Charlie Sly. Sly is introduced by Al Jazeera as a pharmacist but apparently is not. He worked for three months as an unpaid intern at something called the The Guyer Institute in 2013, two years after Manning was treated there.

Never mind that Sly has since recanted. The story is out there. It is being regurgitated, at least in part, by other news sources, which don’t always include Sly’s recanting.

And so it goes.

And people believe what they want to believe, and if you don’t believe that, just read the comments sections at the bottoms of the stories. People accept the report as fact. They comment further and then people comment on their comments and on and on it goes, getting further from fact with each regurgitation.

In other words, the damage is done.

Meanwhile, Peyton Manning, furiously denies the report as garbage. And other publications analyze his denial, while regurgitating some of the Al Jazeera report.

Any person with a cellphone can comment anonymously. Talk shows will have a field day when anybody with a cellphone can call in and opine.

Welcome to the news cycle 2015.

What we need most with today’s 24-hour news cycle bombarding us from every direction, every angle — and from every form of media — is a reliable filter.

We need something we can apply like sunscreen to keep out the false, the unsubstantiated and the biased and let in only the information that is well-sourced and documented.

Such filters once existed and still do in reduced numbers. They are called editors. They are out-numbered.

There was a time not so long ago when most news was delivered by (mostly) reputable newspapers and networks, which employed editors who corrected mistakes and demanded accuracy and fairness from reporters.

That is not the case all too often now when the ultimate goal is not veracity but page views.

So, to sum up, this is what we have as of early Monday morning when this is written: We have a report that is based on the testimony of an unpaid intern, who has since recanted his story. He says he made it all up.

And here’s what should have happened when the reporter came back to the news agency with that report. An editor should have told the reporter: “Go back. Dig deeper. You need more sources. This won’t stand up. You’ve got one source and he’s recanted. You’ve got nothing. We can’t go with this.”

Instead, they went with it.


Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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Adam Brown
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