The reputed fact-checking service PolitiFact contacted the Sentinel with a request last week. The initial email read as follows:
“Hi: For PolitiFact I fact-check articles that Facebook users flag as potentially online hoaxes. I am fact-checking your headline that pertains to the Eric Greitens case: ‘Greitens accuser admits photo session may have been a ‘dream.’’” Can you send me a full transcript of the deposition showing when the woman made this comment?”
The Sentinel responded as follows:
“Amy, For some people, a hoax is anything they disagree with. I do not have the full deposition. I relied on the excerpts in the attorney’s official filing. It is for this reason I used the subjunctive in the headline ‘may have.’ The Daily Mail, among others, did the same thing in its headline: ‘Hairdresser-mistress who accused disgraced Missouri governor of taking racy photo to blackmail her now admits she might have DREAMED seeing him with a camera phone.’ We do not traffic in hoaxes at the Sentinel.”
This exchange resulted in a “Half-True” designation in the Columbia Missourian, the MU publication that partners with PolitiFact. Amy Sherman, the woman who contacted the Sentinel, reviewed the history of the case and introduced the Sentinel headline.
Then Sherman cited her inspiration for her investigation, “Facebook users flagged the post as being potentially fabricated.” This one sentence explains much of the cultural divide in America today. The major media routinely screen their consumers from unpleasant truths. These otherwise cosseted news consumers respond angrily if they see unwelcome truths headlined in a usually safe space like Facebook. They have been conditioned to think of all such contrarian news as a “hoax” or “fake.”
The New York Times, for instance, buried the natural lead under the more reader friendly headline, “Court Filing Says Woman in Greitens’ Affair Unsure of Memory.”
The Kansas City Star headline was even more comforting, “Greitens’ lawyers challenge credibility of woman allegedly photographed while nude.”
Not until the tenth paragraph did the Star mention the most newsworthy detail of its story, namely the woman’s sworn testimony about the photo incident: “I haven’t talked about it because I don’t know if it’s because I’m remembering it through a dream or I — I’m not sure, but yet, I feel like I saw it after that happened, but I haven’t spoken about it because of that.”
This quote appeared in an official court filing by the defense. The “dream” angle is the most relevant element of the story. The Sentinel put it in the headline. So did the Daily Mail. The Star cited the quote in the tenth paragraph of the story. The Times waited until the seventeenth paragraph.
The Times ran an AP story. In the fourth paragraph, the AP reporter wrote, “A spokeswoman for St. Louis Circuit attorney Kim Gardner said Monday that Greitens’ attorneys had ‘cherry picked bits and pieces’ of the woman’s nine-hour deposition ‘to attack her credibility.'”
The deposition is nine hours long. The Times did not have access to it. Neither did the Sentinel. Nor did PolitiFact. That did not stop PolitiFact from coming to the following conclusion:
“News articles state that the woman made that comment during a lengthy deposition. Since we don’t have a transcript of the deposition, it is difficult to evaluate her comment but it appears to be cherry-picking from a deposition that lasted several hours. We rate this claim Half True.”
It should be noted that the Times/AP article relied on a spokeswoman for the prosecution named Susan Ryan for the “cherry picked” quote. According to the article, this same Ms. Ryan said prosecutors “have complied with all evidence-sharing rules.”
At this point, the Sentinel would ask PolitiFact to review two subsequent Sentinel articles, “Greitens’ Prosecutors Admit ‘Egregious Mistakes,’ Face Dismissal of Case” and “Breaking: Greitens’ Prosecutors Produce Missing Video Hours After Release of House Report.”
The Sentinel would then ask PolitiFact how many pinocchios the AP and Times should get for repeating with a straight face the prosecution’s claim, “prosecutors have complied with all evidence-sharing rules.”