Game of Drones

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These are being used in the Middle East, not the Midwest.
These are being used in the Middle East, not the Midwest.
Associated Press

A couple of weeks ago, “The Daily Show” had a fun segment noting Fox News’ allegations that the Obama administration is using drones to spy on Midwestern farmers. Megyn Kelly told viewers the EPA “has been using aerial spy drones for years to spy on cattle ranchers…. These are the same drones we use to track down al-Qaeda terrorists, flying over Nebraska and Iowa.”

Stewart mocked the foolish Fox News reporting, explaining, “Those aren’t the same drones!”

As it turns out, they aren’t drones at all – the whole story is a far-right urban legend gone awry.

It was a blood-boiler of a story, a menacing tale of government gone too far: The Environmental Protection Agency was spying on Midwestern farmers with the same aerial “drones” used to kill terrorists overseas.

This month, the idea has been repeated in TV segments, on multiple blogs and by at least four congressmen. The only trouble is, it isn’t true.

It was never true. The EPA isn’t using drone aircraft – in the Midwest or anywhere else.

Apparently, the EPA has used airplanes – the kind with people in them – to inspect farmlands and ensure the protection of nearby water supplies. It’s perfectly legal, and it’s cheaper than having EPA officials do on-the-ground inspections.

But conservative activists and Fox News took a leap, changing planes to drones, to spread a bogus meme about the Obama administration targeting Nebraska cattle farmers with the same technology used to target al Qaeda in Pakistan.

The Washington Post traced the original lie to pjmedia.com on June 1, and from there, it spread quickly, despite being wrong.

The claim, naturally, reached Capitol Hill, where Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), among others, falsely condemned the Obama administration’s use of “air drones to spy on American citizens.” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) recorded a radio address released weekly by the House Agriculture Committee to accuse the EPA of “using military-style drone planes to secretly observe livestock operations.”

Fortunately, some of those responsible for spreading the claim have walked this back, though it’s unclear how many of those who were told the original lie will learn about the corrections.

There is, to be sure, a legitimate debate to be had over the proper use of drones as a key part of the nation’s military arsenal, but the debate needs to be grounded in reality – we’re using this technology in the Middle East, not the Midwest.

A lie really does get halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

Update: Fox News issued a clarification on its coverage on this on Monday, and apologized for the error.

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