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Commentary: Media's job is to focus on facts, not rumors

  • Story Highlights
  • Mac, Edwards stories point out importance of confronting rumors, Martin says
  • Martin says rules are simple: If you have the facts, run with the story
  • Martin says journalists should stick to that, no matter what hits the Internet
  • That's how journalists keep credibility and integrity, he says
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By Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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Join Roland Martin for his weekly sound-off segment on CNN.com Live at 10:30 a.m. ET Wednesday. If you're passionate about politics, he wants to hear from you.

Roland Martin says journalists don't serve the public if they push rumors.

Roland Martin says journalists don't serve the public if they push rumors.

(CNN) -- Two recent stories are a prime example of how important it is for the media to confront the reality of rumors in the age of the Internet.

One week before comedian Bernie Mac passed away, text messages and e-mails were flying all over the country with reports that he had died. I was in New York, and friends and colleagues from Chicago, Illinois, to Dallas, Texas, and Los Angeles, California, were saying they knew for sure that the 50-year-old comedian was dead.

The rumor mill was so hot that his publicist had to release a statement making it clear that he was not dead, which was subsequently published by the Chicago Sun-Times.

What makes this story important is that it was left to the publicist and the family to decide to quash the rumor with the truth, and it was our job in the media to go with the news because it was the latest information made available regarding his condition.

Then there is the "rumor" of an affair by former North Carolina senator and two-time presidential candidate John Edwards.

The story was broken by the National Enquirer after months of digging.

Ultimately, a source came forward and was­ likely paid for the information ­that blew the lid off of the story; the tabloid's editor said "you can assume" the Enquirer paid for it. The story exposed Edwards as a liar for contending for two years that such an affair never happened.

There has been a lot of hand wringing about why a major media outlet wasn't able to verify the story and run with it. The heated discussions even reached the point where Charlotte Observer editor Rick Thames told PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" that since mainstream media no longer has the news cycle to itself, "When rumor arises, we're going to need to address it. And, unfortunately, we may need to address it before we can determine whether it's true or not because it's having impact, as it was in this case."

Sorry, Rick, I disagree.

The most fundamental aspect of being a journalist is that we don't traffic in rumor and innuendo. None of us serves the public if we are in the business of pushing unverified stories into print or on the airwaves just so we can keep up with a rumor that is out of control.

Running with such rumors has far-reaching implications. Just check out this month's Vanity Fair, where Bryan Burroughs has a great story on the collapse of Bear Stearns. The investment bank's demise, some conclude, was all a result of baseless rumors suggesting the company had cash problems, even though it was sitting on $18 billion. The rumors kept going and going­ and when the story hit the airwaves, it spread like wildfire.

In one week, Bear Stearns was no more, and former company executives are still trying to determine what killed the Wall Street behemoth.

We should forget the nonsense about the competitive pressure to break the story.

The rules are simple: Either you have the facts or you don't. If you do, you run with the story. If you don't, you leave it alone.

The National Enquirer got the story because its reporters were able to confront Edwards as he was leaving the Beverly Hills Hotel room of the woman with whom he later admitted having an affair. Then the paper got its hands on what it said was a photo of the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee playing with a baby the Enquirer said was the child of the mistress. With other major media outlets turning up the heat, Edwards admitted the affair in an interview with ABC's Bob Woodruff.

No media executive should be pulling his or her hair out, trying to figure out why they chose not to spread the rumor. If they had, and the facts didn't support the rumor, then we would all look like fools and that would have angered the public even more.

We have an obligation to stick with the facts, and nothing else. And no matter what a blogger, Web site or tabloid paper has decided to run with, the day we choose to alter our standards, our credibility and integrity will be shot.

In the end, as former ABC News anchor Max Robinson said in 1988, that's all we've got. Nothing is worth losing that, even getting the scoop on an affair involving a candidate whose political career is likely over.

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Roland S. Martin is an award-winning journalist and CNN contributor. He is the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith." Please visit his Web site at http://www.rolandsmartin.com/.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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