When Is a Rumor News?

At some point during the Blogging/Journalism conference that concluded today, we discussed the circumstances under which bloggers and mainstream journalists publish rumors. The bloggers’ rules varied; one participant said he considered his blog to be like standing around a water cooler, and he passes on rumors without compunction; others had more stringent standards. The mainstream representatives present, like the AP and the New York Times, said that they don’t print rumors but insist on journalistic standards of verification.
Nonsense. Mainstream news outlets propogate rumors all the time. A classic example was the hit piece on Iraq the Model which we talked about a couple of days ago; an astonishingly ignorant Times reporter speculated that the ITM brothers are really CIA agents, if they exist at all, based on silly and easily refuted allegations that have appeared on nutjob left-wing sites. And here is an example from the Associated Press: a story titled “Iraqi Official Mum on al-Zarqawi Rumors.” By the simple expedient of asking a public official about a rumor and recording the fact that he didn’t comment, the AP and countless newspapers have propagated the report:

Iraq’s interior minister on Saturday refused to comment on rumors that the top terror leader in the country had been taken into custody.
“I wouldn’t like to comment for the time being,” Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said when asked about rumors that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been arrested. “Let’s see. Maybe in the next few days we will make a comment about it.”
Pressing him, a reporter asked, “Does that mean he is in custody?”
“No comment,” the minister repeated, although he said that arrest warrants had been issued for al-Zarqawi and several officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime, including Saddam deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri and the ousted leader’s half brother, Sabaawi al-Hassan.
The rumors followed an interview aired on an Arab television station earlier this month in which a Saudi man arrested for a deadly truck bombing claimed that he heard from other insurgents that al-Zarqawi had been arrested by Iraqi police in Fallujah but released because authorities didn’t recognize him.
Rumors spread that Iraqi authorities had al-Zarqawi in custody but were waiting to announce it just before the Jan. 30 elections.

This is at least the third time that we have passed along a report that Zarqawi has been captured. Is it true? If history is any guide, probably not. Does this mean that the rumor shouldn’t be repeated? No. It’s legitimate news, in an arena where, for obvious reasons, rumor is sometimes the best we can do.
Does this mean that the Times was justified in passing along an absurd slander started by far-left sites, that could easily be refuted by anyone who had any knowledge of the brothers who run Iraq the Model? Of course not. The point is that it is ridiculous for mainstream media sources to pretend that they are different from us because we pass on rumors, and they don’t.
The second point, I guess, is that Zarqawi might possibly have been captured.

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