As a scholar-in-training, I've noticed that one must do a tremendous amount of research and just plain "breathing the air" of a subject to really get it right. The process has made me terribly suspicious of anything journalists write unless they've focused closely on a specific subject throughout their careers. Powerline confirmed my judgment yesterday:
Very few people realize how often mainstream media sources say things that just aren't true. Sometimes the reason is malice, more often it's ignorance or prejudice. A fascinating example of a libel directed against the Catholic church--undoubtedly the world's most frequently defamed institution--was brought to our attention by reader Matthew Kowalski. On New Year's Day, the Washington Post published an article by Jose Antonio Vargas titled "Seeking the Hand of God in the Waters". The article reported on various efforts to find theological meaning in the South Asian tsunami. The Post article included these paragraphs:
Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago, has written his 55th book, "When Faiths Collide," which he says should land in bookstores this week.
"It's only natural to repose yourself in the will of God," he says. "If you're a believer, then you must believe that God, somehow, is a presence in all of this. But God didn't tell anybody that you go through life without disasters."
Still, talk of religion's role in the disaster irks Marty. Following the devastation in Lisbon in 1755, priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God's wrath. That event "shook the modern world," he notes, changing people's idea of a benevolent, all-caring God.
The ludicrous assertion that priests had "roamed the streets" hanging people after the Lisbon earthquake was made by Vargas, and apparently passed by one or more editors at the Post without raising any questions. The claim was then picked up and repeated by a number of other news sources.
It struck at least one person odd, however: a woman named Theresa Carpinelli. In the Catholic Exchange, she tells the fascinating story of her effort to get to the bottom of this smear against her church. A casual reader of the paragraphs quoted above might attribute the "hanging" reference to Professor Marty. In fact, however, he was astonished to learn that the claim was being attributed to him. It appears that it may have originated in an unsourced, wholly imaginary Wikipedia entry. For reasons not yet explained, Vargas slipped it into his article in the midst of Professor Marty's comments. Ms. Carpinelli has corresponded with Vargas and the hoax has been exposed, but as far as I can determine, the Post has not run a correction.
The moral of the story is that news sources that are considered reliable by many people, like the Washington Post, in fact make a great many errors--some innocent, others not. If an assertion sounds outlandish, like the claim that roving bands of 18th century Catholic priests went about hanging people, realize that it may very well be a fabrication. (Or, to take another example, the claim that a Secretary of the Interior expressed the view that environmental preservation is unnecessary in view of the imminent end of the world.) And bear in mind that false statements seem to be made more frequently about some people--Catholics, say, or Republicans--than about others.