Hannah Giles, James O'Keefe, Peter Schweizer, and David Daleiden: These are names the American public should know. Their writing, which thrives on catchy headlines and specious content, has embodied modern-day yellow journalism. Their investigations have masqueraded as a "public service". But in reality, they have aimed to eviscerate political enemies, regardless of whether their targets have committed any wrongdoing. In fact, time after time, these hatchet jobs against Planned Parenthood, Hillary Clinton, and Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) have been debunked by federal investigations. Our demand for accountability of our politicians and national institutions has been poisoned by a failure to demand the same from our media and liars operating under the façade of journalism.
In 2009, Fox News and BigGovernment.com released videos secretly recorded by Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe at the offices of ACORN. ACORN had in the past done noble work for the public, registering hundreds of thousands of voters, providing relief for Katrina victims, and fighting predatory lending. The videos purported to show ACORN's employees intentionally assisting clients' activities in underage sex trade and prostitution. Soon after, ACORN lost its partnership with the US Census Bureau, along with other government institutions, and it was barred from federal funding. Even President Obama called for an investigation into its activities. When private funding dried up, the organization disbanded.
But when Giles and O'Keefe were given immunity in exchange for raw, unedited footage (they had violated the California Invasion of Privacy Act when secretly recording), the California Attorney General (CAG) found that the videos were heavily edited. Furthermore, CAG found that ACORN had committed no wrongdoing at the time. Later on, more investigations followed. The US Government Accountability Office found that ACORN did not mishandle federal funds; in a related debate, the Congressional Research Service found allegations of ACORN voter fraud to be unsubstantiated; and a law enforcement officer from New York noted that Giles and O'Keefe "edited their tape to meet their agenda".
Fast forward to the scandals of 2015 and we see quite comically, the same incidents have occurred. Soon after a Republican-dominated panel found that no wrongdoing was committed in the Benghazi scandal, Peter Schweizer published Clinton Cash. In the book, he alleged that the Clintons used their positions in government to benefit financial donors, including human rights violators like Russia. Although the headlines have had some truth to them, in that the Clinton Foundation's donation policies might need some reform, they are ultimately deceptive to the American public. Multiple instances cited in the book, like one where Clinton "could have stopped" Russia from buying a uranium mining company in the U.S., have been debunked by organizations like FactCheck.org. When asked about the matter, Schweizer himself noted that there was no direct evidence of wrongdoing, though he remained unrepentant, saying that such evidence is not necessary to attack Clinton's record.
David Daleiden's dishonest Planned Parenthood activities have been even more disconcerting. He's ignited a political firestorm, with conservatives claiming that Planned Parenthood has profited off fetal tissue, just as they claimed that ACORN intentionally committed voter fraud. However, five investigations in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Indiana, South Dakota, and Massachusetts, all thankfully early enough to help defuse the issue, have found that no wrongdoing has been committed by the organization. Conservatives have become so desperate to find any mud to sling at the organization that Florida Governor Rick Scott attempted to scrub statements on evidence clearing Planned Parenthood in his investigation.
Too often, conspiratorial lies have traveled faster than the truth in our politics. They come to define our debates, for they are simpler and can be concocted far more quickly than the truth can be discovered in a systematic investigation. Their rise owes itself to cynical political games and the failures of our news media.
Unsubstantiated ideas, such as those presented by Hannah Giles, James O'Keefe, Peter Schweizer and David Daleiden, are frequently published in the news media without a rigorous investigation into their veracity. Following their initial publication, these ideas are cited and re-cited by other news media organizations, and sometimes the originators themselves, creating a phenomenon known as "circular reporting," repeatedly breathing life into lies so long as they are not fact-checked.
In a corporate world, those committing the transgressions of dishonesty that Giles, O'Keefe, Schweizer, and Daleiden have committed would be unemployable. But instead, their lies are seen as political assets. The well-being of the public and the truth are not considered by politicians, commentators, or even us, the citizens. We demand accountability for our politicians and national institutions, but too often, we fail to extend the same stringent standards to "journalists" who deceive for their political objectives.
The best we can do is to learn to demand a little more from our media. Are they using an anonymous source? It might be better to wait for further reports--anonymous sources face few consequences of accountability when they lie. Are multiple outlets reporting the same thing? Try to see if you can trace it to a single source of the circular reporting to confirm whether there truly are multiple independent confirmations on the matter. What if there's another scandal? Wait for an investigation. There's a reason behind our calls for the justice system to hold us "innocent until proven guilty". Have you seen a video of someone saying terrible things? Ask yourself, is it at all possible that the quotes could have been taken out of context? And if such quotes are not unambiguously clear evidence of wrongdoing, demand and watch the raw footage of the incident.
The public's appetite for sensational headlines, without a taste for the vegetables of rigorous investigation, will always leave our democracy imperfect. But with a little more effort, some of us can learn to ask the right questions and stop manufactured scandals in their tracks. By tearing the masks of "journalism" off the faceless political machines, maybe we can hope to be a little freer in a world chained by lies.