When the Media Wants to Be Fooled
On Thursday, following the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla., a story emerged that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was a member of a white supremacist militia and had trained with them.
This story was shot down almost immediately by local police authorities and the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper. But literally hundreds of media outlets picked up the story, and despite the denials by police, ran with it.
It was a case where the media wanted desperately to be fooled.
Politico has a post-mortem on how the fake news was swallowed whole by the media, and how a patently false story was accepted as true with little effort to verify the facts.
The story began with the left-wing Anti-Defamation League, which had contacted and talked to the leader of the Republic of Florida militia, Jordan Jereb.
“A spokesperson for the white supremacist group Republic of Florida (ROF) told the Anti-Defamation League on Thursday, February 15, that Nikolas Cruz [....] was associated with his group,” the ADL reported. The ADL quoted a man named Jordan Jereb, who runs the small group, which is based in Tallahassee.
“Jereb added that ROF had not ordered or wanted Cruz to do anything like the school shooting,” the ADL wrote in a blog post that was quickly picked up by ABC News and The Associated Press, and later percolated through dozens of other media outlets. Even The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, picked up the claim.
But within a few hours of that report appearing in the AP, the Tallahassee Democrat published a story that immediately called into question Jereb's boastful claims.
Local law enforcement sources have not found a connection between accused Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz and a Tallahassee-based paramilitary group.
Leon County law enforcement sources told the Tallahassee Democrat that they could not find information linking Cruz, 19, to the Republic of Florida Militia, as claimed by the group’s self-proclaimed leader Jordan Jereb.
His comments to the Anti-Defamation League and The Associated Press set off a media firestorm Thursday at about midday that Cruz was connected to the alt-right, white nationalist group.
Hours after news outlets around the nation reported Cruz's alleged ties, Leon County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Grady Jordan told the Tallahassee Democrat investigative work did not yield any connections.
“We are still doing some work but we have no known ties between the ROF, Jordan Jereb or the Broward shooter,” Jordan said.
In another age when the American media was more responsible and circumspect, this would have set off five-alarm bells in newsrooms across the country:
Jereb did not answer repeated phone calls following law enforcement officials saying they found little to lead them to believe Cruz was connected to the organization which has a scant following of around a dozen members.