Six years ago, long before it would have represented a clever play on words involving our current president, the headline of a Carolina Journal Online column urged media outlets: “Don’t let the narrative trump the facts.”

That headline comes to mind this morning as Senate leader Phil Berger’s office issues a news release criticizing a local television news editorial.

10 Days Ago, WRAL Printed a Fake Quote. They Still Haven’t Corrected It.

WRAL: “Senator Berger released a statement demanding no stay-at-home-order”

Reality: No such statement exists. It is made up.

Raleigh, N.C. – WRAL, in its opinion section, ascribed to Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) a statement that he never said. The news organization has still not corrected it.

In a March 30 editorial, WRAL wrote: “State Senate leader Phil Berger, just hours before the governor’s announcement [of a stay-at-home order], released a statement demanding no stay-at-home order until there was ‘the benefit of relevant and obtainable data.'”

Sen. Berger’s full statement is copied below. A stay-at-home order is not mentioned, much less a demand issued.

When contacted for a correction request, WRAL said that a reasonable person could infer from the timing of Sen. Berger’s statement that he intended to say that Governor Cooper should not issue a stay-at-home order. [Emphasis added.]

Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) said, “WRAL invented a quote out of thin air and then falsely claimed Sen. Berger said it. Their excuse for doing so just doesn’t hold water. It’s disappointing to see this type of behavior from a news outlet. Making up quotes undermines the entire organization’s legitimacy and credibility.”

Sen. Berger’s office has requested a fact check from PolitiFact NC, which is run by WRAL.

Here is the full statement from Sen. Berger that WRAL referenced in its editorial:

“Government leaders are making decisions without the benefit of relevant and obtainable data. Unfortunately, they don’t know how prevalent the virus is and has been in the population. Therefore, we do not have sufficient, reliable information to understand true hospitalization and fatality rates.

“That necessary data is easily obtainable through random sample testing, which world-renowned scientists at Harvard and Stanford have been recommending for some time.

“We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed North Carolinians to check the math.

“If the true data supports the most stringent measures, then presenting that data to the public will increase compliance and confidence in government. If the data does not provide such support, then easing of current restrictions will be possible to do safely.

“We must immediately conduct random sample testing to know the answer.”

Assuming that Berger’s office is reporting WRAL’s response accurately, this clearly represents a case of a media outlet allowing its narrative to trump the facts. Berger’s statement issues no demand. It implies no demand. It says nothing about any specific order, making only a general reference to “government leaders making decisions.”

Criticism of Berger’s statement, including its timing, did not require misstatement of the facts. Had the words “demanding no stay-at-home order until” been replaced with “criticizing government leaders like Cooper for making decisions before,” the senator would have had no reason to complain.

A “reasonable person could infer” that the WRAL editorial writer wanted to portray Berger as issuing a demand about a specific controversial order, regardless of the facts.

This failure to comply with basic journalistic principles reminds me of a quotation from a 2019 Carolina Journal Online column: “The case offers a warning to other reporters, producers, pundits, activists, and advocates: Be careful not to let your favorite ‘narrative’ blind you as you pursue the truth.”