A laurel to WaPo’s debunking of ‘EPA drones’

David Fahrenthold chronicles the "life cycle of a falsehood"

Starting today, we’ll be bringing a venerable CJR tradition, Darts & Laurels, to The Swing States Project. Each Wednesday, we’ll run a short post assigning a dart, a laurel, or both to some noteworthy political coverage from the prior week. In keeping with the focus of The Swing States Project, many of the highlighted stories will come from local outlets in the states where we have correspondents—but they may also come, as is the case this week, from major national outlets.

This week’s laurel goes to David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post, for his stellar June 16 story exposing the roots of the false claim that the Environmental Protection Agency has been using military-grade drones to spy on Midwestern farmers.

Fahrenthold’s story ably chronicles the birth and (hopefully) brief life cycle of a falsehood, and it’s chock-full of links so that readers can follow along. As the Post article shows, the story starts with complaints from Congressmen and an advocacy group about the EPA’s aerial surveillance, via small manned flights, of farmland to check for clean-water violations. Initial low-key reports of those complaints got distorted by readers—the Twitter feed of @Patriotland is the first “drone” cite the Post found. Somehow it worked its way from there into conservative media, and within a week the drone story was being “reported” at outlets like Fox News and The Daily Caller—and also by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart, who repeated the claim in a segment mocking Fox’s Megyn Kelly.

That history leads to this, which is probably the killer passage in Fahrenthold’s story:

The day after that, three more congressmen complained. Reps. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and Tom Latham (R-Iowa) wrote their own letters about the reports of drones. And Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) described his worries about drones in the “AgMinute” radio address released weekly by the House Agriculture Committee. Fortenberry cited “press reports” that the EPA “has been using military-style drone planes to secretly observe livestock operations.”

Here was the echo chamber at its peak. Fortenberry himself had signed the original, drone-free letter from the Nebraska delegation, whose misinterpretation had begun the drone rumors in the first place.

At this point, nine days later, the false reports about his own statement had reverberated around the country, and found their way back to Fortenberry. And the lawmaker appeared to treat them as something new—and alarming.

Fortenberry’s radio address set off a new round of echoes, with online outlets repeating his worries about the drones.

It adds up to a bracing picture of, as Politico’s Jonathan Martin put it on Twitter, “how the freak show works.”

The Post’s story ends on a downbeat note—flagging the fact that a second Daily Caller report, which notes the EPA’s denial, has fared far worse on social media than that outlet’s initial, drone-hyping story. (And that second Caller piece is itself an awfully weak walk-back: the lead declares that the “controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency’s aerial surveillance of cattle farmers in Iowa and Nebraska has led to suggestions that they are using drones to spy on cattle ranches,” without stipulating that those “suggestions” are false.)

But there is some good news to report here: days after Fahrenthold’s article appeared, McClatchy’s David Goldstein turned in a similar article, versions of which ran in The Kansas City Star, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and other McClatchy papers. Search Google for “epa drones” right now, and the first hit you’ll get is the Star’s version of the story, with the headline: “False reports of EPA drones over Midwest farms alarm public.” Sometimes, good journalism can help keep the freak show at bay.

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Liz Cox Barrett and Greg Marx are CJR staff writers and co-editors of The Swing States Project.