SOLOMON: Important Hoaxes Get Less Scrutiny
This fall began with big news stories about a hoax. Sensational documents -- showing that President Kennedy paid hush money to Marilyn Monroe -- dazzled a fine journalist and powerful media executives. But they finally realized the documents were fake.Days after splashy coverage threw cold water on the Monroe- Kennedy papers, another hot item turned into a dud. At first, it had real sizzle: The New York Times devoted nearly a quarter of its front page to a new book attributed to an Italian trader who sailed from Europe to southeast China in 1271, four years before Marco Polo's fabled trek."A reading of an advance copy suggests that, while it lacks the scope of Marco Polo's epic tale, it has similar historical significance and perhaps greater drama," Times foreign correspondent Nicholas Kristof wrote gravely. But eight days later, at the end of September, the publisher (Little, Brown) announced postponement of the book due to serious doubts about its authenticity.In each instance, the moral of the media story is that even top-notch journalists and sophisticated execs can make mistakes -- and that the mass media system works by correcting errors and shining light on the truth.This may seem reassuring. After all, if media institutions are willing to bite the bullet and admit mistakes, then we don't have much to worry about.The problem is that mainstream media like to debunk the hoaxes that aren't very important. The relationship between Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy is not exactly a key issue for our futures. And few modern destinies hinge on whether the public believes that a 13th century Italian merchant made it to China before Marco Polo.Let's face it: The less weighty a media hoax is, the more likely it will be set straight. And vice versa.When deceptions cast a huge shadow, they're liable to get scant attention. That's why we're still waiting for the national media to come to terms with hoaxes of recent decades that had profound consequences.Early this year, for example, the longtime owner of The Washington Post and Newsweek, Katharine Graham, basked in profuse media praise for her autobiography. Reviewers seemed untroubled by the fact that the 625-page book did not even mention the momentous hoax known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident.Graham was president of the Washington Post Co. when the front page of her newspaper carried a fateful headline on Aug. 5, 1964: "American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers." The Post joined with other large media to report falsehoods -- supplied by U.S. officials -- as absolute facts.What followed, within days, was the congressional Tonkin Gulf resolution -- and then a bloody war in Indochina, with a death toll in the millions. But Newsweek was never interested in challenging the Tonkin Gulf Hoax, in sharp contrast to the verve of the three-page spread on "The JFK-Marilyn Hoax" in the Oct. 6 issue.In late 1990, another big hoax encouraged war. A sobbing Kuwaiti teenager sat before a congressional committee and told of seeing Iraqi invaders pull hundreds of babies from incubators in a Kuwait City hospital.The tears were shed by the daughter of a Kuwaiti diplomat -- and her performance was a scripted lie. But the U.S. media treated the hoax as unvarnished truth, underscoring the need for military action.On the home front, conventional media wisdom can be so pervasive that years go by with news outlets busily perpetrating hoaxes rather than exposing them.A decade ago, news media were filled with claims that the banking industry had to be deregulated in the interests of competition and stability. In 1988, the American Bankers Association gloated that 140 out of 150 newspapers ran editorials in favor of deregulation.The hoaxers got their way. Deregulation went into effect. The savings and loan disaster quickly ensued, with the U.S. Treasury picking up a bailout tab that ballooned to hundreds of billions of dollars.Today, in Washington and many state capitals, deregulation mania is rampant. Corporate strategists in various industries are euphoric. But -- even after consumers and taxpayers get stuck with whopping bills -- don't hold your breath for news media to examine the hoaxes that made it all possible. Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His book "Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) was recently published by Common Courage Press.