Cable News: Where Being Loud Makes Up for Being Wrong


A couple weeks ago on John Stossel's show, I debated sex crimes with Wendy Murphy, the TV pundit and former assistant district attorney for Middlesex County, Massachusetts (where, like Scott Harshbarger and Martha Coakley, Murphy fought the release of Cheryl Amirault in the bogus Fells Acres sex crimes case). During the debate, Murphy threw out a statistic that only 2 percent of sex offenders are actually on sex offender registries. I'm still not sure where she got that figure. I'm also not sure what it's supposed to measure, or what conclusions we're supposed to draw from it. I still haven't been able to find any study that produces that statistic.

Last night I saw another clip from Murphy in a segment from The Daily Show. This time she was discussing birthright citizenship and the "anchor baby" issue. The Daily Show's clip was so completely outrageous, I looked up the interview that the clip was pulled from to make sure Murphy wasn't taken out of context. She wasn't, but more on that in a bit.

When I found the full interview (watch it here), I saw that Murphy again threw out a statistic that sounded preposterous on its face. At the two minute mark in the immigration debate Murphy says:

In prisons, half—half—the prisoners in California are illegal aliens.

She even pauses for effect. I can find no study, report, or government data to support that assertion. In January, the Sacramento Bee cited California state government data that put the number at 13 percent. This incoherent Fox News scare story (note that the final few graphs negate the entire premise of the article) puts the number at 12.4 percent (that figure is as of 2004, which the article says is the most recent year figures were available).

The only support I can find for Murphy's claim is this passage from a 2005 Investors Business Daily editorial:

Some estimates show illegals now make up half of California's prison population, creating a massive criminal subculture that strains state budgets and creates a nightmare for local police forces.

It isn't clear what "some estimates" means. The claim is unsourced. My guess is that the figure comes from the same number crunchers who gave us Lou Dobbs' Mexicans-and-leprosy figures. This particular IBD passage was excerpted by Newsmax in 2006, and has since been cut-and-pasted by immigration opponents on message boards all over the Internet. (Murphy's underlying premise is wrong, too. The evidence increasingly shows that border cities and states have lower crime rates than the rest of the country.)

So where did Murphy get her "half" figure? I'd hate to think an adjunct professor at the New England School of Law would carelessly pull a bogus statistic from Internet message boards, then repeat the figure to a television audience. But then, we're talking about the same woman who once said that disgraced North Carolina prosecutor Mike Nifong "deserves to be promoted and celebrated."

Murphy's continuing saturation of the cable news airwaves is nauseating. Her punditry career should have ended with the Duke lacrosse case, when she appeared all over cable news to defend Nifong and to damn the falsely accused lacrosse players, first prematurely, then even as it became clear to the rest of the world that they were innocent. (As late as last year Murphy was still griping about the lacrosse case). K.C. Johnson wrote of Murphy at the time, "In addition to the outrageous quotes highlighted above, on at least 18 occasions over the past nine months, Murphy has made demonstrably untrue statements. She also has engaged in a pattern of wholly unfounded speculation and has routinely denigrated due process." Johnson ably shows his work in that post.

Murphy never apologized for repeatedly slandering the Duke players (she once claimed, with no evidence, that they had "ripped open" the accuser's vagina). Yet her punditry career took off. She was rewarded with a book contract and dozens more TV appearances. William Anderson noted earlier this year that Murphy was recently invited onto the Today show to vouch for Catoosa County, Georgia's shameful sex abuse persecution of Tonya Craft. (Craft was acquitted on all counts.)

In a 2007 interview with the American Journalism Review, here's how Murphy justified going on TV to publicly convict potentially innocent people in spite of the evidence against them:

"Lots of folks who voiced the prosecution position in the beginning [of the Duke case] gave up because they faced a lot of criticism, and that's never my style." She notes that she's invited on cable shows to argue for a particular side. "You have to appreciate my role as a pundit is to draw inferences and make arguments on behalf of the side which I'm assigned," she says. "So of course it's going to sound like I'm arguing in favor of 'guilty.' That's the opposite of what the defense pundit is doing, which is arguing that they're innocent."

It's all theater, you see. She's just playing a part. It's fine if she slanders some people, ruins some reputations, spouts flat falsehoods, and generally dumbs down the public discourse. Because it's just entertainment. It's what pundits do.

The sad thing is, Murphy is mostly right. Cable news is about lining people up on either side and letting them go at it. There's no room for subtlety. There's certainly no time for fact-checking a guest's claims, even after the segment airs. Murphy is pretty, provocative, and confrontational. She's great TV. That she's inaccurate, slanderous, and hysterical is beside the point.

Let's get back to that segment on immigration. Here's what Murphy had to say about birthright citizenship:

I know we're talking about babies, and it's hard to be tough on babies, but let's remember, we're talking about illegal aliens coming to this country for the purpose of birthing a child, not because they love the kid, but because they want the child to provide them with the benefits of U.S. citizenship. In other words, that's not the kind of child who's going to be raised well and be a productive citizen. The child is barely loved. It's more like a thing and a commodity than a human being.

At some point you have to wonder, is it even possible to be too shameless for cable news?