The alleged Mel Gibson audio tapes certainly offer a shocking view into the violent mind of whoever it is speaking on the tapes. But I think they also offer a troubling snapshot of how low standards have sunk in terms of verifying information before it is published by mainstream media outlets.
Let me just take a small bite of this big and rotten apple -- a bite that suggests a new standard of publishing first without verifying the source or truth of information, and then waiting to see if anyone challenges its authenticity.
All sorts of mainstream media outlets were using this sorry standard to justify publishing and airing the crude, violent and debased tapes alleged to contain Gibson's threats against a former girlfriend. But the one that I found most troubling came on NPR Monday, an outlet that otherwise seems to pride itself on the highest journalistic standards. At least, that's the journalistic talk it talks.
Here's "All Things Considered" co-host Michele Norris introducing the segment that included an edited version of the tapes, which she described as "the latest disturbing turn in the life of the actor Mel Gibson."
"A word of warning," she says. "What you're about to hear is unsavory and it may not be appropriate for young listeners. We're talking about audio posted by the website, RadarOnline. It's audio of a conversation apparently between Gibson and his ex-girlfriend... On the tape, the man alleged to be Gibson sounds unhinged... cursing wildly, at times, panting to catch his breath as he verbally abuses her..."
After Norris plays the "unsavory" tape, she brings on John Horn, a film writer from the Los Angeles Times, to discuss what listeners just heard.
"...What do we know about how and when these tapes were allegedly recorded?" she asks Horn.
"They were apparently, allegedly recorded by his ex-girlfriend secretly and, I suspect, without his knowledge or consent -- a minor legal question in the bigger picture," Horn says.
"...She is claiming she did not leak them," Norris says, "so do we know anything about who did provide them?"
"No we don't know, and Radar has not said who released them," Horn explains, "But no one yet has disputed the authenticity of it. But it is not clear from where it came."
What a sorry performance by NPR. The tapes are "unsavory" and might distrub young children. NPR has no idea where they came from, why they were made public or even if it is Gibson on the tapes. But they are played anyway in afternoon drivetime to an audience of millions.
And then, NPR interviews Horn, and he tells their national audience that the practice of illegally taping someone is a "minor" legal question. And Norris fails to question that statement.
Horn correctly acknowledges that all he or anyone else really knows is that a tabloid website claims the voice is that of Mel Gibson, but he points out that "no one yet has disputed the authenticity."
This is our new standard in the mainstream media, I guess: Publish first, grab the page views, and then, hold your breath, hoping no one "disputes the authenticity" of the document that we failed to verify in any way, shape or form to start with.
I am not saying that is not Gibson's voice on the tape. I don't know if it is. But that's the point: No one knows it, and yet everyone is publishing and airing the tapes and laying it off on the words of a questionable tabloid website. Once upon a time, we did not publish or air until we knew for sure -- until we had verified who, what, when, where and why. As far as I can tell, not one of those questions had been answered before NPR aired the tape.
The words atrributed to Gibson are deplorable, but many in the media have not behaved very well either in trying to grab a piece of the online action connected to this sordid matter.
You can listen to the NPR segment here.