The Ox-Bow Incident

By Jay Jamison

I admit that I had to look it up. At the end of his article, calling for time to reflect before making a judgement, in a world where snap judgments have become all too frequent, Victor Davis Hansen wrote this about recent media failures: “In all these cases, why not allow a little time, even if only a few hours, to be the arbitrator of veracity rather than shoot from the hip moral outrage? Otherwise, day after day after day, we are just updating “The Ox-Bow Incident” for the internet age.” I remember reading the novel “The Ox-Bow Incident” about forty years ago, and my memory isn’t what it used to be, so I looked up the reference. Written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark and first published in 1940, “The Ox-Bow Incident” is a tale of the old west, of men jumping to conclusions, which leads to the lynching of innocent men, who are innocent of the charges assumed by the mob. Not exactly a rollicking fun read. Just scroll through Facebook and you will likely run across exactly what Dr. Hansen is talking about. When a narrative goes “viral” it means the story has spread rapidly like a malignant, out-of-control, virus. Viruses either grow, remain dormant, or they die—they do not reflect on anything. When a story moves so fast that no one can stay ahead of it, and then it turns out that the whole thing was false, you’d think some people would pause for a moment and reflect on being duped, before robotically repeating the next falsehood to folks down the line. Before the internet, reputations were destroyed by rumors spread by word of mouth. Now people, and institutions, can be destroyed in a matter of seconds, because someone hit “share” on a false story, without giving its veracity a moment’s second thought. The problem is exacerbated when supposed journalists produce stories that lack verifiable facts and rely on quotations from unnamed sources. Before journalists needed college degrees, reporters, as they were then called, usually were writers who worked their way through the ranks of a newspaper or magazine, often under the skeptical guidance of experienced editors. Controversial stories needed to be triple-sourced, with actual quotes from named sources willing to go on the record. The questions: who? what? when? where? why? and how? had to be addressed. Michael Walsh got to the nub of it in a January 19 column in PJ Media, where he wrote, “The first rule of journalism is, as in screenwriting, ‘show, don’t tell,’” -which, I take to mean, present the facts, backed by valid sources, and the story reveals itself. I wrote in this space recently about my anger at supposed TV journalists who repeated a falsehood about George H. W. Bush, that he was a World War II navy fighter pilot—he was not. He piloted a torpedo bomber, which had a crew of three. A “so what?” shoulder shrug about minor details misses the point. If the media presenters were so lazy that they refused to take a few minutes or seconds to verify this detail, rather than to repeat what their competitors down the dial had been saying, why should anyone believe the larger story? Out of due diligence, I looked up Dr. Hansen’s perfect metaphor–the title of a novel–about fake news, before passing it along to you.

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