Facts, Shmacts. It’s A Good Story!

The Reno Gazette-Journal turns an outlandish rumor into "news," before the story collapses upon itself.

On Tuesday, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported on its front page that Nevada’s embattled first-term Republican governor, Jim Gibbons, had said the day before that he had “heard a rumor that Democrats paid the Wall Street Journal to publish stories about his relations with a defense contractor,” coverage he claimed was designed to help Democrats in 2008.

(Keep in mind that the Journal’s John R. Wilke has written a series of hard-hitting articles on Gibbons, beginning in November — just before Gibbons’ election as governor after five terms in Congress. On February 15, Wilke reported that the FBI was investigating whether Gibbons “accepted unreported gifts or payments” from a Reno software company that was secretly awarded military contracts when Gibbons was a Nevada congressman. Gibbons has denied wrongdoing.)

To let it sink in, the Reno paper repeated in its next two paragraphs that Gibbons had “heard” this rumor — a rumor that Gibbons discussed only because Gazette-Journal reporter Ray Hagar asked him about it. Gibbons also asserted that the campaign of his Democratic opponent brought Wilke to Elko, Nevada, for a debate, which is where Gibbons met him. And that was the Gazette-Journal’s major evidence in support of the outlandish “conspiracy theory” pitting Democrats and the Wall Street Journal against Gibbons. But since this was the governor voicing support for the rumor — even if he did not give a source for it — the Gazette-Journal clearly had enough for a 1,000-word article.

Or did it? Gibbons’ Democratic rival, Dina Titus, said she has not met Wilke and has “no connection to him whatsoever.” A Journal spokesman said, “The governor’s suggestion that the Journal’s coverage is a product of the Nevada Democrats is baseless.” The assembly speaker, Democrat Barbara Buckley, said, “The very idea that a newspaper of that caliber is going to accept money to make up stories about a governor is far-fetched, to say the least.” And, added a Democratic assemblyman: “We don’t have that much juice.”

So the rumor was ridiculous, and the Gazette-Journal had nothing to back it up. The governor’s press secretary did allude to “a significant effort on behalf of the Democratic Party to aggressively attack my boss’ legislative agenda and provide further distraction, not allowing us to move forward leading the state,” but more importantly she said this: “Rumors are just rumors and they only distract those who want to be distracted. The people who care about the rumors are you guys, the reporters.”

But the Gazette-Journal didn’t listen much to that; instead, it turned its WSJ rumor into “news.” (Speaking of listening, what Gibbons said in a short audio clip on the Gazette-Journal’s site did not quite match to the quotes printed in its story.)

Later on Tuesday the story collapsed upon itself when Gibbons, prodded after a state board meeting, said of the rumor, “I don’t give it any credence.” (Hagar, the reporter, did not return a call for comment Wednesday.)

Yet the horse was already out of the barn, as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann made clear Tuesday night — when, apparently unaware of the governor’s retraction, he named Gibbons “Today’s Worst Person In The World!”

And if a national anchorman had said it, the paper had no reason to back down: Midday Wednesday the Gazette-Journal made that Olbermann link the top story on its homepage.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.