Cable Nets Blow Their Own Houses Down

To smoke or not to smoke -- it was never a question.

Unless you live and breathe in the sometimes-provincial world of Capitol Hill, you might not have heard of a trivial story that has received far too much attention this week.

“Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) believes it is his right as a Muslim to be sworn into Congress with the Quran. But apparently, the freshman lawmaker doesn’t believe it’s Rep. Tom Tancredo’s (R-Colo.) right to smoke a cigar in his congressional office,” The Hill reported on its front page Wednesday.

The careless story next declared that “Ellison’s office called the Capitol Hill Police on Tancredo last Wednesday night as Tancredo was in his office smoking a cigar,” but in its next-to-last paragraph subtly corrected itself, reporting that Ellison’s press secretary actually “made the call to the superintendent’s office when he noticed the smoke. ‘I called because the smoke was coming through the walls,’ [Rick] Jauert said, adding that the superintendent’s office referred him to the Capitol Police.”

More glaringly, the story carried the headline “Rep. Ellison calls the cops to snuff Tancredo’s cigar.”

That was wrong, as Think Progress and Melissa McEwan among others have since pointed out. And while ABC’s Jake Tapper engaged in some admirable self-correcting reporting on his blog, the Hill has not, as today’s letters to the editor indicate.

But the Hill’s faulty initial report did give this story life — and now serves as an illuminating example of how a piece of misinformation can be amplified by the media, particularly the cable networks, which have pretty much hung themselves on this “controversy.”

Wednesday afternoon, MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson led off his program with what he called a “crime story from Capitol Hill,” saying that “Police were called to the Longworth House Office Building this week at the request of freshman Democrat Keith Ellison of Minnesota.” In the “Tucker Op-Ed,” Carlson gave his version of events — claiming that Ellison “demanded that the officer march into Congressman Tancredo’s office and confront him anyway, which the officer did, sheepishly” — before he lashed out:

Let’s take three steps back here for a second. Somebody lights a cigar, so you call the police? You, my friend, are a hysterical little girl. Get some counseling. Quick. And yet Ellison isn’t alone. Something about tobacco turns Democrats into Bible-beating moralizers more self-righteous than Jerry Falwell ever thought of being. …

On the Big Story With John Gibson an hour and a half later, the Fox anchor told his viewers “a congressman calls the cops on another congressman and you won’t believe what for. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi banned smoking in the speaker’s lobby last month, but she didn’t ban puffing inside lawmakers’ actual offices. But would you believe Democrat Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim member of Congress, called the Capitol Hill Police on Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo for smoking a stogie in his office next door to Ellison’s? Not a good way for the freshman to introduce himself.”

The segment, which included an interview with Tancredo, made a joke of the whole thing, playing police sirens accompanied by the caption “CIGAR POLICE: Congressman Calls Cops on Colleague For Smoking Cigar!”

On the Situation Room that same hour, CNN gave its own wry take on the “CAPITOL SMOKING SPAT,” as correspondent Tom Foreman’s report closed with this line from Tancredo: “We have a smoke detector. It’s called our next-door neighbor.” Afterwards Foreman admonished, “I don’t like cigar smoke, but this is one of the great legislative bodies of our land, and this is what they are talking about now, Wolf.”

Actually it’s mostly been Tancredo who’s been talking about this overblown “spat” (as far as we can tell Ellison has not been quoted directly on the matter, though he did send a handwritten apology to Tancredo Wednesday night), aided by the likes of CNN, which recycled Foreman’s piece the next afternoon.

Like Tucker Carlson, anchor Kyra Phillips got the timing of the incident wrong (it was last week, people!), but otherwise her words were on the money: “Talk about clearing the air. A congressman who like to smoke cigars in his office got a visit this week from the cops. CNN’s Tom Foreman reports on a Capitol Hill controversy that’s running on fumes.”

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.