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posted: 7/30/2012 5:00 AM

Trust and online journalism

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By Rick Newcombe

Years ago, I gave Arianna Huffington her start as a syndicated columnist, and recently, her website got my brother condemned by quoting him out of context. That is an amazing set of facts set side by side.

What shocked me about The Huffington Post and its treatment of my brother, Jerry, was its lack of professional standards. I knew it was an opinionated website, but I did not know that it would deliberately take statements out of context as a way to generate controversy.

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Jerry Newcombe is an evangelical Christian minister with Truth in Action Ministries who has written or co-written 23 books, hosts a weekly radio show, writes a weekly column and appears regularly on television as part of Truth in Action (formerly Coral Ridge Ministries). Several weeks ago he wrote a column about hell, saying that, in his opinion, too many people don't fear it.

On the morning of the tragic shooting in Colorado, he retold the same basic column, saying that we had lost fear of hell as a society and that's part of the reason such evil things happen.

In the new column, he wrote, "Tens of millions of young people in this culture seem to have no fear of God. It's becoming too commonplace that some frustrated person will go on a killing spree of random people. If they kill themselves, they think it's all over. But that's like going from the frying pan into the fire. Where is the fear of God in our society? I don't think people would do those sorts of things if they truly understood the reality of Hell."

After the column was posted, Jerry was then interviewed by a Christian radio network on the morning of the shooting.

Like many evangelicals, Jerry believes that unless you embrace Jesus Christ, you cannot go to heaven. Personally, I don't agree with him because I believe that only God decides on who goes where after we die. But our personal views are irrelevant, except insofar as The Huffington Post used words from Jerry taken out of context from that radio interview, as if he were talking specifically about the victims of the Colorado massacre.

He never made any comment, nor would he, about the state of those who were killed; he even noted this week how some of the victims showed "Christ-like behavior in shielding other victims."

However, he did say of the alleged shooter: "The next time someone wants to take out their frustrations on others by killing innocent victims, they ought to consider the eternal consequences of their evil actions."

On the Monday after the shootings, The Huffington Post ran this headline: "Jerry Newcombe, Evangelical Leader, Says Only Christian Victims Of Colorado Shooting Going To Heaven."

Talk about twisting what someone said to suit your agenda.

The Huffington Post essentially connected dots that Jerry did not and would not connect.

He said to me in an email: "I never said, never would say, anything about those people who died in the shooting because I knew (and know) nothing about them and their spiritual status. God is the Judge, so for The Huffington Post to say that some of them went to hell is not true. They put words in my mouth -- painful words that I would never say."

But it gets worse. Because Jerry immediately contacted The Huffington Post and complained that he never discussed the victims of the shooting, they refused to take the column down or run a correction.

Why let the facts get in the way of a good story? More than 7,000 readers made comments, mostly condemning Jerry, kicking The Huffington Posts' straw man over and over.

As Jerry said, "I too would have kicked the person who wrote what they claim I wrote about the victims!"

Many experienced journalists have warned that, with the decline of newspapers, there are fewer safeguards to make sure that the public is presented accurate information.

The Huffington Post, in this instance, violated every principle of basic journalism by claiming that Jerry was talking about the victims of the Colorado shooting, when he was not, and by refusing to correct the error after it was pointed out to them.

There are many great news and commentary websites that take pride in their accuracy, and incidents like this threaten to damage them all.

At Creators, we work with some of the best writers and artists in the world, syndicating their work to these websites and to every newspaper in the country that runs syndicated content. We don't care if someone is liberal or conservative, just as long as they are talented, interesting and honest. In fact, when we began syndicating Arianna Huffington in the 1990s, she was on the right initially and then moved to the left, which was fine with us.

The first political cartoonist to help found the company in 1987 was the legendary Herblock of The Washington Post. He is credited with coining the term "McCarthyism" more than a half-century ago. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy was famously asked, "Have you no shame?"

What an appropriate question for The Huffington Post; where the answer to that question can only be provided by Arianna and her editors who posted that misleading story.

Rick Newcombe is the founder of Creators, a worldwide media company that syndicates hundreds of columnists and cartoonists.

2012 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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