I’ve had email exchanges with two right-wing bloggers who helped hype the Kerry intern hoax and have done nothing to inform their readers that it has proven to be false in every particular. Neither wanted to be quoted by name, but they made more or less identical points:
1. I’m only a blogger, not a journalist. If I tell my readers what someone else said, I take no responsibility for whether it’s true or not, and I have no obligation to come back later and tell them it was false if I learn that it was false.
2. Just because everyone involved denies it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. They might all be lying.
3. We think the press and the Left Blogosphere was unfair to George W. Bush about his National Guard service and that the mainstream press was unfair to George H.W. Bush about charges of adultery. So there!
As to the general ethical question, anyone who spreads information has an obligation to his readers to try to keep that information accurate, and to correct it when it proves to be false. Whether the reporting was primary or secondary seems to me largely irrelevant. On top of that, there is a human obligation not to harm people without justification, for example by saying or implying things about them that are untrue and that damage their reputations. If you make a mess, you clean it up.
And without conceding for a moment that the attack on GWB was unfair, I would like to point out a significant distinction. As a public official, George W. Bush’s conduct is the public’s business. The same is true of John F. Kerry and Wesley Clark. They are entitled not to have their words and conduct misrepresented, but if their feelings are hurt by being criticized they’re in the wrong line of work.
The woman falsely accused in this case of having slept with a man old enough to be her father is not a public official, or a public figure of any kind except through having been victimized by Matt Drudge and his accomplices. She is a noncombatant, and those of us who are fighting the political wars have an obligation to minimize injury to noncombatants.
Everyone who wrote about this story in any way is now, in my view, obligated to say loudly and clearly, “The rumors about a sexual affair between John F. Kerry and the woman formerly known as his intern now appear to be utterly without foundation. No one currently stands behind them. No evidence has been offered in support of them. They should therefore be treated as false. It is regrettable that the woman in this case has had her name dragged through the mud.”
Really, I can’t see any ethical complexity here at all.