At 2:45 p.m. on Thursday, a member of the right-wing message board Free Republic posted a Reuters photo that the news wire captioned as "U.S. President Barack Obama (C) and France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) take their places with junior G8 delegates for a family photo at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy." The Free Republic member invited other members to submit alternative captions for the photo, resulting in dozens of sexually suggestive replies, some using racist epithets.
About two hours later, at 5:12 p.m., the Fox News website The Fox Nation posted the picture along with the headline "Another Stimulus?" It later revised the title to read "Busted?"
Just minutes after Fox Nation's mocking of the photo, ABC News' Jake Tapper posted the photo with the headline "When In Rome...?"
Around 4 a.m., almost 12 hours after he first posted the photo, Tapper posted this message on Twitter: "that foto of POTUS seeming to be sneaking a leer is misleading, im told - video shows the moment was completely innocent." He also updated his blog post by adding "Actually, not so much" to the headline and including video of the incident. Tapper wrote in the updated post, "On first glance, the snapshot appears to show President Obama caught in a moment of less than lofty analysis. But upon looking at the video, the moment might seem to appear quite innocent -- one of those times when a picture can be misleading. The president was on a higher step and was stepping down -- so he looked down to assure his footing as the woman was walking up the stairs." He concluded: "Although: not everyone agrees. Judge for yourself."
A classic example of how the right-wing noise machine works was unfolding before the American people. A non-story starts on a right-wing website and works its way into the mainstream. It usually involves Drudge, the fedora-wearing boy who cries wolf (almost daily) on the Internet, and mainstream news outlets follow his lead, offering up under-researched and factually inaccurate story lines.
Had the mainstream media done their job -- you know, checking the video to get the context from which the photo was taken -- they would have clearly seen that Obama was attempting to navigate high steps, while reaching back to help someone behind him do so as well. As Fox News host Greta Van Susteren said after airing video of the event, "Yes, a still picture can lie. And this one does."
Of course, the next morning after Van Susteren's show, the Fox & Friends crew went right back to trashing the president with lascivious speculation that was contradicted by easily accessible fact.
News segments that set the record straight are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. Fox's Van Susteren, ABC's Good Morning America, and MSNBC Live should be commended for pushing back in segments about the faux controversy. Perhaps their colleagues could learn a thing or two from their example. After all, journalists and news outlets checking the facts before running with a "story" is the least we should expect.