It's an example of confirmation bias: Everyone believed the story because it confirmed their preconceptions.
In politics, confirmation bias drives and deepens partisan narratives. That's what happened when Lila Rose released a series of videos in which an actor posing as a pimp asked Planned Parenthood employees about medical care for underage sex workers. The conservative media exploded. Pro-life groups barraged journalists with triumphant press releases. Rose said her videos prove "beyond a shadow of a doubt that Planned Parenthood intentionally breaks state and federal laws and covers up the abuse of the young girls it aims to serve."
Her first video was damning. It showed a Planned Parenthood counselor advising the phony pimp on how to skirt the law and continue generating income through his underage prostitutes. "For the most part," she said, "we want as little information as possible." She was promptly fired; Planned Parenthood called her behavior "repugnant."
The other videos were less clear. The fake sex trafficking plot the conspirators peddled was vague, and in almost all cases, the employees conducted themselves according to protocol and notified their supervisors after the actors left. Shortly afterward, Planned Parenthood wrote to the Justice Department and the FBI to report the suspicious visitors.
To pro-life groups, however, it was an open-and-shut case where such details were too insignificant to mention. Taxpayers are "funding a criminal abortion enterprise," a Family Research Council action alert shouted, as Planned Parenthood is "willing to exploit the victims of child trafficking" to "promote abortion." The National Right to Life called the group a "a hyper-political, under-regulated, out-of-control mega-marketer of abortion as a method of birth control." The president of Life Dynamics said the videos revealed Planned Parenthood is part of "organized crime."
As unsettling as it is to hear the counselors delivering their bureaucratic responses on the tapes, however, they did not commit or conspire to commit crimes. They handled the situation like most people would: They answered the questions and notified the authorities immediately afterward. In every case, the counselors were clearly concerned about the girls and saw it as their responsibility to provide them with reproductive care. The videos may prove Planned Parenthood employees sometimes look the other way when giving medical assistance, but they don't prove these people work for a "criminal enterprise."
The Lila Rose videos weren't the first time activists have trumped up misleading videos to score political points. Last year, James O'Keefe (who helped inspire Rose's stings) secretly videotaped conversations at the offices of ACORN, a group that helps secure low-income housing for the poor. Even though prosecutors in New York and California, as well as a federal investigation, cleared ACORN of wrongdoing, the damage was done. Innocent employees were fired, Congress stripped the group's funding and ACORN filed for bankruptcy.
These stories caught fire because they appeared to confirm conservative beliefs about organizations they dislike. Activists, bloggers and interest groups ran with the stories before they could judge their accuracy. But time and investigation proved that bomb-throwing partisan tactics rarely reveal the truth of a situation.
Activists like Rose are, as journalist Libby Copeland wrote, "the face of all-out war," a political war in which stories are used as weapons. Liberal democracy depends on the virtue of level-headed people weighing information that challenges their preconceptions -- a practice made more difficult when partisan media grow louder and unaccountable activists launch attacks with a video camera and an Internet connection.
We should take pains not to believe stories just because our side is telling them, especially yarns calculated to cause maximum damage to the enemy. One too many of these bombs could blow us all to pieces.
David Sessions is editor of Patrol, an online magazine he founded to explore the intersection of religion, politics and culture. This article is excerpted from a longer piece that appeared on Patheos.com.