So this is what journalism has devolved into in the twenty-first century. Major media outlets have stooped to printing out-and-out lies and distortions, then cavalierly retracting them as if everything on the internet isn’t forever.
CNN led the way in June with a story that a presidential adviser to Donald Trump was under investigation for ties to Russia. When the report, culled from a “source,” turned out to be bogus, the network was forced to eat crow. The story was retracted and the reporters responsible for it fired.
The latest major news organization to play the retraction game is an especially big fish. It’s Reuters, and they are guilty not only of running a headline that was patently false but of trying to cover their tracks after pulling the story and replacing it with a totally different one. Unluckily for Reuters, a number of lesser media sources contract to reprint their stories, and the original headline — “Robert E. Lee doppelganger pulled from college broadcast” — can still be found at the Bangor Daily News, as can the story.
The piece focuses on a much-maligned decision by ESPN to pull an Asian-American sports announcer from an upcoming assignment to cover a football game at University of Virginia on the grounds that his name, Robert Lee, was nearly the same as that of the general who led Confederate forces during the Civil War. (In case it’s not obvious, the network’s abiding concern was that the name might be a “trigger” to snowflakes at the school in light of recent developments in Charlottesville.)
But back to the title for Reuters’s retelling of this incident. Doppelganger? The term is popularly used to designate two people who look so much alike that they could pass for twins. The dictionary definition includes the phrase ghostly double, but the fact remains that we are dealing here in look-alikes.
Yet, as the photo above reveals, Robert Lee looks nothing like Robert E. Lee.
Even the story at Reuters was somewhat misleading. The opening paragraph begins, “An ESPN announcer with the same name as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee has been removed from an upcoming broadcast.”… But Robert Lee does not have the same name as Robert E. Lee. When two people share a common first name and surname, it is standard practice to distinguish one from the other by appeal to a middle name or initial.
But Reuters didn’t stop at merely retracting the story. The URL remains. But when you click on it now, you are taken to an entirely different story with the title “Charlottesville shrouds divisive Confederate statues in black cloth.” Announcer Robert Lee’s name doesn’t appear at all. (As an important aside, Robert E. Lee attended West Point and was the most decorated officer in the U.S. Army before the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army, but Lee’s first loyalties were to Virginia. Yet, he was opposed to both secession and slavery.)
I suppose Reuters would justify their devious behavior by submitting that both stories — the one that was killed and the one that replaced it — deal with Charlottesville and Robert E. Lee. That makes the topics of the two pieces similar. And, as we have seen, similar for Reuters means “the same.”