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Spin Control

Sun., June 14, 2009, 6 a.m.

Note to media critics: check your facts

About once a week, some reader is kind enough to forward something from the Internet that shows what an absolutely abysmal job the news media is doing on some topic or another.

Sometimes the complaint involves not telling them that Barack Obama was really born in Africa, or is a closet Muslim, or perhaps from another planet. I can live with that, because a). I’m pretty sure he wasn’t born in Africa but couldn’t prove otherwise to their satisfaction if my life depended on it; b). I take all people at their word on their religion, but wouldn’t care if he was a Muslim; and c). I’m from another planet too, and we aliens stick together.

Other times it involves stories of the military and military heroism, which the e-mail’s anonymous author insists the NEWS MEDIA WILL NEVER TELL YOU.

As someone who covers the military for a paper, and sometimes writes about local veterans who’ve done remarkable things (they’re leery about calling themselves heroes, so I generally don’t) it is mildly annoying to suggest any newspaper would pass up a good story of heroism. They’re much better to write than, say, a story about zoning policy or sewer rates.

The real reason we usually haven’t told the story in the forwarded e-mail is ...

...because some aspect of it isn’t true. (Imagine that, something on the Internet that isn’t true.)

Take the story of the late Ed Freeman, a decorated Army helicopter pilot from the Vietnam War, who an e-mail currently on its fifth or sixth iteration says didn’t get the media coverage he deserves.

That Freeman was a hero for flying his helicopter in and out of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, when members of the 1st Cavalry were vastly outnumbered and pinned down by withering fire, is not in question. Whether the Army fully recognized it at the time might be, considering he got the Distinguished Service Cross back then, but wasn’t awarded the Medal of Honor until 2001. And when President Bush gave him the nation’s highest military honor, newspapers all over the country, including The Spokesman-Review, reported that – as it did in 2007 when another pilot, Bruce Crandall of Manchester, Wash., got his. (Crandall isn’t mentioned in the e-mail, by the way.)

The battle may sound familiar because it was the basis for the movie “We Were Soldiers” in which Freeman was played by Mark McCracken.

Toward the bottom of the e-mail is often a mention of someone else who died the same day and got more – and decidedly much less deserved – coverage, so you know about him but not Freeman. For a while it was Paul Newman, even though they died several weeks apart.

 “Medal of Honor Recipient Ed Freeman died on Wednesday, March 25, 2009, at the age of 80, in Boise, ID. May God rest his soul,” the e-mail concludes. “Since the media didn’t give him the coverage he deserves, send this to every red-blooded American you know.”

(Just checking: Other than aliens like me and Obama, do any Americans have blood that isn’t red?)

There is one minor factual problem with that part of the message. Freeman didn’t die on March 25. He died last August in Boise. When that happened, his hometown newspaper, The Idaho Statesman, wrote a long story recounting his life, which was much more than his heroism at Ia Drang.

Like many Internet stories that survive through the repeated forwarding to multiple addresses, the date of his death may keep changing to make it more relevant. Some versions say “last Wednesday”, which may have been true when the anonymous author first sent it off into cyberspace.

March was when Congress named a Post Office for him in McLain, Miss., where he was born. Maybe the date was tied to that, or maybe it’s just an effort to “freshen” on old e-mail around Memorial Day, making it fodder for some blogs where it could generate fresh outrage at the media. Some newspapers, apparently feeling chastised for a lack of patriotism, reprinted all or most of the e-mail, including the March date, without so much as a Google search.

This isn't to suggest readers should stop sending notes that show how bad we've screwed up. Just realize we’ll double check them, even if you don’t.

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