Will Rogers, the late American humorist and cornpone philosopher, once said, “All I know is what I read in the papers.” That statement earned him a place in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” Were he alive today, it would most likely be inviting widespread derision. Today’s newspapers abound with bogus stories. Most of us know only of the stories that are soon exposed. Doubtless, there are many more. For instance, news stories of gross domestic product growth or inflation rates usually have to be revised but are taken at face value when they first appear.
Are there any newspaper readers in America who do not know about the humbug of Rolling Stone’s story about alleged rape at the University of Virginia? The story was based solely on the word of the alleged victim without any further sourcing. University officials and local police now have yet to find a trace of the seven rapists. The fraternity at which the alleged rape took place has no record of a party there — two years ago, as it happens! And one more thing, it appears three of the victim’s original supporters now think they were given a bogus email address. They are beginning to doubt her elaborate story, which features no witnesses other than her.
Yet some would-be journalist working at the University of Virginia’s college paper, The Cavalier Daily, has notified Politico that “to let the fact-checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake.” The university apparently agrees. Denied the benefit of evidence to substantiate the victim’s claim of rape, the university is going ahead with its sanctions against the whole Greek system on campus — including the sororities. So at this point, there was no rape at U.Va., though the university officials are still in a lather about sexual assaults on campus.
Another bogus story has appeared in New York magazine. Over the weekend, a high school student from Queens, who claimed to have made some $72 million trading in stocks during his lunch break, said he made up the entire story. The student, Mohammad Islam, 17, and his sidekick, Damir Tulemaganbetov, the “son of a Kazakh oligarch,” informed the New York Observer that Mr. Islam pulled a fast one on the magazine in its “Reasons to Love New York” issue. The magazine assured readers that it was “looking into [the hoax] further and will update accordingly.” It even claimed that its reporter had seen Mr. Islam’s bank statements “that showed he is worth eight figures.” Alas, a spokesman for these fun-loving kids said there were no bank statements and the “fact-checking [by New York] could have been more stringent.” Perhaps New York’s reporter, Jessica Pressler, was looking at Mr. Islam’s laundry lists. At any rate, she will not be at New York long. She is moving on to Bloomberg News, to its investigative unit.
Which brings me to my favorite bogus story of recent days, one that made the front page of The New York Times, and that really warmed the heart of my wife and of our Labrador retriever. In The New York Times, the story ran under the headline “Dogs in Heaven? Pope Francis Leaves Pearly Gates Open.” The story that originated in Italy’s Corriere della Sera and quickly traveled around the world claimed that Pope Francis, while attempting to console a grieving boy who had lost his pet, asserted that heaven is open to pets. Naturally, the newspaper reported this theological bombshell while needling conservative people of faith about how the pope “has given hope to gays, unmarried couples and advocates of the big-bang theory.” There were other digs at “conservative theologians,” and there were claims that the pope’s remarks were a “repudiation of conservative Roman Catholic theology that says that animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls.” The news story said nothing about my Labrador retriever’s lack of the faculty of free will (to make moral judgments) or her very limited sense of right and wrong, two issues that would certainly matter to the pope.
Thus, people with a love of animals and a moral heft were not surprised the other day when it was reported that the story was completely untrue. Pope Francis never made the idiotic statement, and there was no grief-stricken boy. The news story was based on a misreading of the pope’s general audience Nov. 26 at the Vatican. Yet the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, did have a helpful bit of information for journalists. He said, “There is a fundamental rule in journalism. That is double-checking, and in this case it was not done.” Nor was it done at New York magazine or at Rolling Stone, and apparently it will not be done at the University of Virginia’s campus newspaper. Thus, we can anticipate more amusements from American journalists in the years to come.
• R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and the author most recently of “The Death of Liberalism,” published by Thomas Nelson Inc.