From North Korean nuclear threats to mass shootings, 2017 has been a tough year for America. It is also the year that the mainstream media finally, fully and completely jumped the shark, engaging in the sort of rank speculation they once mocked as the domain of conspiracy theorist cranks and radio talk show hosts.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was mowing his lawn when he was allegedly violently attacked by his neighbor, Rene Boucher. Boucher’s attorney told media that the attack was over a “trivial” landscaping dispute and not politically motivated. It soon emerged that Paul ‘s injuries were far more extensive than originally believed, and he had suffered six broken ribs.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the media reacted by running headlines riffing off of Boucher’s attorney’s explanation. After it emerged that Paul had been seriously injured, Boucher pleaded “not guilty,” and Sen. Paul’s social media accounts posted articles from neighbors claiming that the attack was political in nature, mainstream media began calling the story of his injuries “strange,” “weird,” “a mystery” and even a candidate for the “strangest story of the year.”
Fox News ran several programs questioning why the Paul team wasn’t “screaming foul” over the attack, with anchor Shep Smith going so far as to say the story “smells like a skunk in the chicken house, but [he hasn’t] seen the skunk.” Paul was “cryptically deepening the mystery around the incident,” according to Roll Call. AOL called the story “a mystery,” too. CBS said the story “keeps getting weirder and weirder,” and the Washington Post used the word “weird” to describe the attack too, putting the onus on Paul to explain what had happened. CNN ran the headline that perhaps best captured the theme: “This Rand Paul story keeps getting weirder and weirder (and weirder).”
This is all very like the Lemony Snicket quote, “They didn’t understand it, but like so many unfortunate events in life, just because you don’t understand doesn’t mean it isn’t so.” With every crime, facts and motives take time to emerge. Officials often have to keep details under wraps as investigations are ongoing, so good journalists try to dig deeper and find better sources, instead of calling the story “weird” and publicly head-scratching on cable news shows.
There is nothing weird or odd about the victim having a wildly different version of the incident than his alleged attacker. Nor is it unusual or surprising that the alleged attacker’s defense attorney would provide an account that places his client in the best possible light, especially when an admission of political motives could trigger federal charges with very serious penalties attached. A “not guilty” plea, even from someone who has not denied the attack, is also utterly routine in courtrooms across the country. Given all that, why are mainstream cable news shows acting like this is a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie’s Detective Hercule Poirot?
In 2015, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) fell while exercising, injuring his eye and ribs. Did mainstream media run headlines like: “Why Harry Reid’s Home Exercise Accident Story Does Not Add Up?” Nope. But Breitbart did, and radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh took it even further, theorizing on air that Reid had been beaten up. This type of baseless speculation used to be the sole domain of fringe blog sites and radio pundits. Even though Reid’s injuries were extensive, “real news” didn’t think of pursuing this line of questioning or running headlines calling his story “weird.”
So what gives? Is this because Paul is a Republican, and Reid a Democrat? Or is 2017 the year in which the almost imperceptible line between “real” news and “fake” news is finally fully erased?
In the first place, the media should not have spent so much time discussing Boucher’s attorney’s version of events as if it were an unbiased account. Doing so, and then demanding explanations from Paul in light of his serious injuries, was a hideous form of victim blaming that was unworthy of “real news.”