Accuracy in Media

The Washington Post has been exposed for having spread a false story far and wide that they apparently don’t want to acknowledge. The story first appeared in the Post last December, following the disastrous tsunami that struck the South Pacific, killing more than 200,000 people in 13 countries. Titled, “Seeking the Hand of God in the Waters,” it dealt with theological questions about why and how something like this could possibly happen. It sought out quotes from various religious leaders, including Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Christian. Is this punishment, divine retribution, or what?, the article pondered.

The article told of the Lisbon, Portugal earthquake, followed by a tsunami and fire, killing an estimated 100,000 on November 1, 1755. It told of a rather shocking occurrence, and attributed it to a distinguished cleric and scholar.

Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago, and an ordained Lutheran minister for more than 50 years, had just written his 55th book, “When Faiths Collide.”

The Post article said that “talk of religion’s role in the disaster irks Marty. Following the devastation in Lisbon in 1755, priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God’s wrath. That event ‘shook the modern world,’ he notes, changing people’s idea of a benevolent, all-caring God.”

That sure sounds like Marty was making the claim that priests were roaming the streets and hanging people who they believed had incurred God’s wrath. But in fact he never said that, though he was interviewed for the article. The author of the article, Jose Antonio Vargas, has admitted that Marty never said that, and that his source was Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an online “encyclopedia” that anyone can edit and thus everything on it can be questionable.  It was also caught falsely claiming that retired journalist John Seigenthaler, Sr. was once suspected of being involved in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.

This rumor took on a life of its own. It appeared this year in a book titled “A Crack in the Edge of the World,” by Simon Winchester, an Oxford-educated journalist, and was used in a sermon by the Reverend Phil Blackwell, who has since retracted it. George Will, the popular columnist for the Washington Post, included it in a column, referring to Winchester’s book. It appeared in numerous newspaper articles, including one by David Shi, the president of Furman University, who has also since retracted it.

The driving force behind the correction of the record is a dogged investigator from Ohio named Theresa Carpinelli, who has written a series of articles about her research and conclusions. Those who have retracted their stories credit Carpinelli. She has written numerous letters to the Washington Post and George Will, but to no avail. They have made no effort to correct the error, or defend the charge.

In a recent letter to the Post ombudsman, Carpinelli wrote the following, about an article that she is currently preparing: “The article will outline how publication in the Post has given a life and credibility to this anti-clerical slander that it would not have had otherwise. It is just this type of shoddy journalism (not checking sources) that has caused publications like the Post to lose credibility in the eyes of the public.”

We tip our hat to Carpinelli. She is taking on a media giant that we know only too well doesn’t like admitting its mistakes.

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