CNN, MSNBC, the Atlantic and other media outlets may have unintentionally taught reporters and Web surfers a valuable lesson - Wikipedia isn't a reliable source. Yet, these media could also teach people another lesson. When you report a malicious lie that you didn't double check, common decency demands that you apologize.
The last week has witnessed a firestorm of attacks accusing Rush Limbaugh of racism. The slurs were timed to kill the talk-radio host's attempt to help buy a minority stake in the National Football League's St. Louis Rams. It worked. The NFL made it clear that Mr. Limbaugh's presence would doom the bid, so he was removed from a group being organized by St. Louis Blues chairman Dave Checketts to bid on the team.
CNN's Rick Sanchez falsely claimed that, "Limbaugh's perceived racist diatribes are [pause] too many to name. Here's a sampling. He once declared that 'Slavery built the South. I'm not saying we should bring it back; I'm just saying it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark.' " MSNBC interviewed Dave Zirin, a sports writer and editor for fringy left-wing magazines the Nation and the Progressive, who claimed: "Rush Limbaugh is an unreconstructed racist. They don't want an owner who has said that slavery was a good thing because it made the streets safer."
Similar quotes were repeated on the Web sites for the Atlantic magazine and the Huffington Post and were repeated frequently by local media in the St. Louis area. The NFL Players Association sent around an e-mail last week urging it was necessary football "rejects [Limbaugh's] discrimination and hatred."
But Mr. Limbaugh never said anything remotely like that. The quote was entirely made up. And few media outlets mentioned that the head of the players association, who was leading the charge to stop Mr. Limbaugh, had done work for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and the Obama presidential transition team.
The attacks consistently distorted Mr. Limbaugh's 2003 comments about Donovan McNabb. At the time, Mr. Limbaugh claimed, "the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." But Rush was right. He was pointing out other people's racism.
These attacks are not exactly new. A couple of months ago, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow used another unsubstantiated reference to a supposed Limbaugh statement and claimed, "When you get called racist by the guy who says the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. should get the Medal of Honor, consider yourself honored."
Honest contrition isn't in the liberal playbook. While admitting he didn't confirm the salacious quote before using it on CNN, Mr. Sanchez couldn't bring himself to say he was wrong on the same program where he made the charge, burying his mea culpa in a Twitter message. The Atlantic admitted being distressed about the error, but not upset enough "to apologize to Rush." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch finally conceded that the quote was wrong, but it didn't really matter: "There is still a huge pile of polarizing, bigoted debris. . . ." It is doubtful MSNBC and others will have the guts or the propriety to confess even that much.