After Robert Montgomery wrote in an ESPNOutdoors.com column that the federal government had a strategy in the works that "could prohibit U.S. citizens from fishing the nation's oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes, and even inland waters," it was only a matter of time before the conservative media took the bait -- hook, line, and sinker. Easily made puns aside, the story was tailor-made for "conservative journalism." After all, Montgomery had no evidence for his claims.
Another week, another wild, right-wing-media-driven conspiracy theory centered on the Obama administration.
Conservative blogs led the charge in advancing the dubious story, posting their own spin under headlines like "Obama: The Will Of The People Be Damned - I'LL Decide Who Can Go Fishing" in the case of RedState.com and "Obama's war on fishing?!?!?!" from the queen of right-wing blogging and bellyaching, Michelle Malkin. It mattered little that the story was complete bunk -- unsupported by a shred of proof.
It wasn't long before Fox News' Glenn Beck, a regular purveyor of ridiculous Obama-centric conspiracy theories, took up the yarn. In classic Beck fashion, the crew-cut host told his audience, "I told you a year ago this would happen. I'm not some prophet by any stretch of the imaginations. ... People are losing their rights. Who's more important: the fish or you?"
Beck aside, no smear of the Obama White House would be complete without an assist from Rush Limbaugh, the granddaddy of the conservative media. On back-to-back shows, El Rushbo laid it on thick, one day saying that "fishing is about to become a privilege controlled by Barack Obama," and the next, speaking as if he were Obama: "[Y]ou can't touch me. ... I can stop you from going fishing wherever you want. ... I can do whatever I want to do."
In perhaps the strangest turn of events surrounding the story, FoxNews.com ended up debunking Fox News, with the conservative outlet's reporter Joshua Rhett Miller writing that government documents didn't contain "language pertaining to a potential ban on recreational fishing, as some reports had previously asserted." Of course, some of those "reports" included the Fox Nation website, Fox Business Network, and the previously mentioned Beck.
Ultimately, an ESPNOutdoors.com editor acknowledged "errors" in the handling of the piece and its lack of "balance," but you can expect this one, like so many others, to end up in some chain email from your Fox News-loving uncle in the coming weeks.
The controversy surrounding the latest debunked, conservative-driven conspiracy theory is not the first, nor is it the strangest. Like other bogus stories from the past year, it shares a similar cast of characters, most notably Beck, all eager to tar the president, evidence and journalistic integrity be damned.
Did you know that OnStar, the popular automobile safety feature, is actually a cause for concern because Obama's liberty-killing government could use it to impose "martial law?" You can thank Beck for that one.
Then there was the absurd story that FEMA was building concentration camps for those who disagree with the Obama administration. A year ago, Beck addressed the subject on Fox & Friends stating, "We are a country that is headed towards socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest imagination," later adding that he "wanted to debunk" the theory that FEMA was building camps, but he just couldn't. Beck would go on to spend weeks sowing the seeds of this bizarre conspiracy theory, noting that he would debunk the issue when and if he could, before finally hosting the editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics to set the story straight.
The FEMA camp conspiracy dovetailed nicely with another Beck-driven tale of totalitarianism: that Obama is busy assembling a "civilian national security force," which Beck said was "what Saddam Hussein" did and "what Hitler did with the SS." Beck's relentless pursuit of this "story" was sparked by a speech in which Obama spoke of expanding the Foreign Service, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps. That's right, to Glenn Beck, these respected outfits are akin to Hitler's SS. Shameful.
Reporters who value truth and journalistic integrity should be on notice: Don't trust these Beck-ian right-wing conspiracy theories, the people who spread them, or the networks that offer these kooks a platform. Deeming these folks rational players in the conservative movement deserving of our attention only serves to further undermine the already fragile reputation journalists have among the American people.
It almost makes one yearn for the days when right-wing cranks prattled on about the president's birth certificate. Even Beck wouldn't touch that one.
Karl Frisch is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, or sign up to receive his columns by email.