No wonder public confidence in TV news, is so low. Blame the blurring of the already-wavy line between reality and fantasy -- "truthiness," in Stephen Colbert's memorable phrase.
According to the most recent Gallup survey, only 21 percent of adults express "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in TV news, the all-time low since the question was first posed 20 years ago. The result is on a par with big business, banks and organized labor. Congress remains lower, of course, with a 13 percent thumbs-up vote.
A striking example crossed our radar this week that supports public cynicism about "viral" videos. When something "goes viral," it should always arouse skepticism and suspicion. After all, "viral" is the adjective of virus, the scourge for which we seek vaccinations.
Five months ago on YouTube, a 30-second video was posted that promptly popped up on national network newscasts. It purported to show a baby goat helplessly thrashing around in a petting zoo pond. To the rescue swam a heroic pig that reminded me of Wilbur in E.B. White's immortal "Charlotte's Web."
No surprise that this video made the rounds of the usual web sites seeking to maximize "page views" for the benefit of advertisers.
But I was shocked to see it on NBC's "Nightly News," though not surprised to learn it had been featured on the tabloid morning shows -- "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America" and the often-despicable "Fox & Friends."
I should have smelled a rat. To her credit, ABC "GMA" newsreader Elizabeth Vargas asked her co-hosts how this preternaturally talented pig had managed to free the supposedly trapped goat. But weatherman Sam Champion laughed at her, remonstrating, "Every day with Elizabeth, it's like, ‘How did this happen?' "
NBC "Nightly News" anchor and managing editor Brian Williams introduced the brief clip with a semi-disclaimer, observing that he and his colleagues felt "duty-bound to pass this on." Tom Brokaw's successor protected himself by observing that "we have no way of knowing if it's real."
Couldn't some basic Journalism 101 have revealed what was confirmed this week? It was a fake video, staged as a prank by Comedy Central for a new series.
The pig was placed on a plastic track to guide him to the goat, which was just frolicking and was not in harm's way. The New York Times reported that it took a 20-member crew -- scuba divers, animal trainers and humane society officials -- to pull off the stunt. The goat was enjoying its swim so much that the anguished bleats heard on the video were dubbed in.
As a YouTube sensation of the day that attracted some 7 million views, no harm, no foul. But fakery televised on major national newscasts is not to be taken lightly.
Poynter Institute senior faculty member Kelly McBride told The Times: "It really is embarrassing for the journalists who stumbled upon this and decided to promote it or share it with their audience. It's almost a form of malpractice."
Exactly. Can't blame Comedy Central for the unintended consequences of its video designed to promote a faux-documentary series, "Nathan for You," that made its debut Thursday, in which 29-year-old comic and star Nathan Fielder demonstrates extreme marketing stunts designed to help small businesses.
As Fielder posted on Entertainment Weekly's website ew.com Wednesday: "Sorry, fans of animal cuteness. You can't believe every video on the Internet. We devised this idea that if we staged a rescue with two baby animals and it happened in water and it was between two species and there was a friendship element in it, that it would be the perfect ingredients for something to get popular We uploaded it and it just went crazy. I woke up the next morning and it was on Gawker and Reddit and everywhere."
Fielder went on: "I don't think I have any responsibility to fess up or anything. We didn't try to actively trick the news. We put a video on YouTube but what happened from there had very little to do with us so it was fun to watch."
Trouble is, Nathan, it's a short ride from not believing every video on the Internet to not believing any video on the Internet, or on its close media cousin, TV news.
For his part, the aforementioned Mr. Williams made light of the whole affair (he dubbed it "Pig-gate") on his Tuesday evening broadcast: "While we said at the time we have no way of knowing if it was real, despite checking, we now know it wasn't. We can all thank Comedy Central for the hard work of a crew of 20 people. So, well done there."
Not good enough. As Prof. McBride pointed out, Comedy Central's "really low level of responsibility" to be truthful "pales in comparison to the obligation of journalists who vet information, because the journalists have made a promise to their audience that they will tell the truth. When there are so many nuggets of raw, unfiltered information out there, our job increasingly becomes to find the most meaningful ones and tell the story behind it."
Her advice to Williams and NBC: "Go find something cute that is real."
Better yet, with only 22 minutes of news time for 9 million nightly viewers, how about skipping cute in favor of a focus on serious journalism, the kind found primarily now on NPR and area stations like WAMC and WFCR with their robust local news departments.
We know the answer, and it's not pretty. Audience ratings, you think?
Clarence Fanto, a regular contributor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org