In today's ever-growing coagulation of fact, fiction and rumor from print, digital and social media, where is the news consumer to look with confidence for the truth?
The flood of instant accounts of the Boston marathon explosions and their alleged conspirators severely complicated the critical task of police and other law-enforcement officials in tracking down those responsible.
Meanwhile, the airwaves and television screens were filled with inflammatory chatter resulting in conflicting and often unfounded charges of culpability against a range of ethnic, religious and immigrant groups, inflaming an already incendiary public climate.
The first burst of confusion was followed with a hacking of the traditionally dependable Associated Press wire, spreading the falsehood that the White House had been attacked and President Barack Obama injured. The report temporarily sent Wall Street into panic.
In all this, the onetime anchor of the newsgathering world, daily newspapers and other print journalism, continued to struggle against the inroads of economic woe that have shrunk trained reportorial and editorial staffs. Shortcuts and mistakes have become commonplace in print, and are compounded now by the bombardment from news "sources" driven by political bias or just plain mischief, tweeted anonymously via a largely unmonitored Internet.
The collective informational train wreck was bound to happen. Shattered in the process has been the once-sharp line between the conveying of verifiable fact, distributed to readers and listeners via trained dispensers of news, and the avalanche of propaganda and venom spewed by self-serving partisans of all stripes.
In this, old print reporters and columnists must acknowledge a share of personal and institutional responsibility for undeniable shortcomings in our daily news product. But the fault can be attributed as well to the severe reduction in the professional watchdogs of the business -- the trained copyeditors often derisively called "green eyeshades" -- who man copy desks in newsrooms across the country.
Another factor in the decline, perhaps the key one, is the explosion of technology in the delivery of all manner of conjecture, opinion, propagandizing, proselytizing and irresponsible tongue wagging encompassing the phenomenon of "the new media."
For many years, it was comforting for older members of the newsgathering craft to have the megaphone essentially to ourselves, with criticism and general kibitzing of our product limited mainly to our internal editors. Their sharp black pencils obliterated many a carefully if ill-chosen adjective or phrase, but usually in the interest of fact and clarity. You knew the slashing came for cause and in the service of an improved report.
The old imperative "Get it first, but first get it right" was widely honored. That's one reason why it was so jarring that the Associated Press, notably unbiased and supported by newspapers right, left and center, had fallen victim to journalistic sabotage.
But the informational hand grenades tossed into the Boston marathon tragedy were more generally destructive, both to public safety and to the civic function of the news media: to give citizens a factual and rational consensus of the significance of the event itself.
We have suffered enough from the poisonous and distorted blather dished out by partisan commentators and propagandists over the nation's airwaves. Another old adage, attributed to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, remains valid: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." It should apply to tweets, blog posts and to "old media" reporting and commentary alike, as the new age of communication expands.
Yet, we witnessed another national disgrace in the successful assault on a Senate bill by the National Rifle Association and other well-heeled and politically intimidating elements of the gun industry. They distorted the proposed new controls on gun purchasing in the legislation as efforts to "take away your guns," and they prevailed despite the fact that 90 percent of Americans surveyed supported broader background checks on gun buyers, a key element of the bill.
The challenge to all who deliver news, whatever their medium, remains the same: to convey the facts that voters need to make up their minds. Getting their legislators to listen to them, alas, is another matter.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun