David Frum

06.18.12

How Lies Spread

Anatomy of a paranoid fantasy. The Washington Post reported Sunday on the origins of the false story about the EPA's supposed use of spy drones:

Step 1: A story begins in the real world. In this case, some Nebraska ranchers objected to the longstanding practice—approved by the Supreme Court in 1986—of the use of aerial photography to enforce clean water laws.

Step 2: Their elected representatives raise the issue.

Step 3: Somebody on Twitter mistakenly converts "aerial" surveillance into "drone surveillance."

Step 4: The conservative website PJ Media puts the error into a headline: "EPA Using Spy Drones to Fly Over Midwestern Farms.”

Step 5: The mistake jumps to Fox News, first introduced by Bob Beckel, the token liberal on the afternoon program, "the Five."

Step 6: Fox News' Megyn Kelly reports the rumor as fact, unsourced.

Step 7: The Daily Show mocks Kelly's report, but treats the use of drones as a genuine fact nonetheless.

Step 8: Republicans in Congress write furious letters of complaint.

Step 9: The story is by now a national controversy, without there ever having been a word of truth to it.

Four conditions made the rumor possible:

1) A readiness by important sections of the population to believe that they live in some kind of imminent police state. In this, the paranoid conservatives of the Obama era are no different from the paranoid progressives of the Bush years.

2) The aggressive recklessness of Fox News' reporting. A single phone call to the EPA could have debunked the story. Obviously that phone call was never placed.

3) The dangerous reliance of many, many young people on the Daily Show as a source of information.

4) An almost universal lack of interest in the question: even if the story were true, what would be so very shocking about it? If aerial inspection of open fields and waters by manned aircraft is a reasonable search, as defined by the Supreme Court, why isn't unmanned aerial surveillance equally permissible? If clean water enforcement is a legitimate government function, how does it become less legitimate when the inspector sits in a control room rather than in a cockpit?