CNN's Hilarious Dildo Flag Gaffe is Yet Another Example of the Decline of American Journalism

We salute your dildo blindness, CNN. But at the same time, it's more than a little distressing that, yes, here we are again, with a major news outlet reporting a story before it's been properly vetted for accuracy.
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We salute your dildo blindness, CNN. But at the same time, it's more than a little distressing that, yes, here we are again, with a major news outlet reporting a story before it's been properly vetted for accuracy.
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Howard Stern has the market cornered when it comes to his listeners calling into live news programs and scamming their way onto television, only to shout "Howard Stern's penis!" or "Bababooey!" to the bewilderment of anchors who wrongfully trusted their producers to properly vet sources before going to air. It's always hilarious, on one hand, but on the other hand, it's a disturbing commentary on the current status of the news media, both online and off. We'll come back to this in a minute.

During Friday's worldwide Price weekend celebrations as well as the Supreme Court's support for the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, CNN ran a report out of London in which a reporter photographed what appeared to be an ISIS flag being waved during the festivities. The anchor, along with two different British correspondents went on and on about why anyone would possibly wave an ISIS flag at Pride event, while also wondering if anyone had been able to track down the culprit.

At one point, Lucy Pawle wonders out loud whether the white text on the flag is Arabic or simply "gibberish." Overall, the network treated the existence of the flag as if it might portend a terrorist attack. Reporter Peter Bergen attempts to link the flag to the fact that ISIS has been executing gay people, to which the anchor asks, "Could this be a warning?" Cue terrorism freak-out.

And now... the rest of the story.

The "gibberish" lettering on the flag? Pawle was correct. It wasn't Arabic. The letters weren't letters at all -- they were different varieties of dildos. Had anyone at CNN bothered to take a critical look at the photos, it would've been pretty damn obvious that each "letter" was either anatomical or contoured for various forms of sexual pleasure. Then again, it's much easier to see what appears to be an ISIS flag, then to rush the photos to air in an attempt to be the first to break the story about how ISIS was signaling a terrorist attack against gays or whomever else.

Once again, it's endlessly hilarious that for nearly seven minutes, CNN showed photos of a flag that clearly depicted many different styles of dildos, butt-plugs and other sex toys, while describing the whole thing with deadly and oblivious seriousness. We salute your dildo blindness, CNN. But at the same time, it's more than a little distressing that, yes, here we are again, with a major news outlet reporting a story before it's been properly vetted for accuracy.

Pathetically, this happens far too often and in contexts that aren't so funny. The existence of social media has rocket-propelled one story after around the world dozens of times before the truth ever gets its pants on.

While this wasn't social media per se, it's part of a trend that specifically includes a dependency upon social media to drive ratings. Hence the need to be fast and first rather than accurate. I can’t say this enough: we’re at a potentially dangerous crossroads in American journalism. Digital journalism has the potential to greatly benefit the American debate, or it will derail it. I’m afraid we’re witnessing the latter -- today, in real time.

Whether or not you happen to be in the business of digital journalism, I urge you to (re)watch the great 1994 Ron Howard movie The Paper. The salient lesson of the movie, for news reporting at least, is that there’s a temptation to run what’s expedient rather than what’s accurate. Michael Keaton’s metro-editor character tenaciously pursued the truth about two teenagers who were wrongly accused of gunning down a pair of mobsters. During the climax of the movie he even “stopped the presses” (“Ya’ gotta say it!”) in order to prevent the publishing of a ridiculous “Gotcha!” headline about the arrest of the teens.

There needs to be more of that. In the digital age, there needs to be more of a willingness to lose a few hits or be second or third on a story in the pursuit of accuracy. Being first and attracting a lot of views are noble goals for sure, but never at the expense of the truth.