Sunday, November 27, 2011

Do You Believe Everything You Read in Sketchy Online Publications?

We are gullible people.  This is, I realize, a sweeping and imprecise statement, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure quite who I mean by we, but I mean it and I consider it to be one of the most dangerous threats facing humanity. Wait, I mean more dangerous than nuclear armament, global warming and unrest in the Middle East?  Why yes, yes I do.  Because all of those by and large the physical threats to our future as a species are governed by people who make decisions about the stewardship of weapons and fossil fuels and rubber bullets based on their assessment of the information available to them.  In other words, nuclear bombs don't kill people, people kill people, and if people run around just a-believin' every bit of crackpot data that crosses their path, we're some kind of fucked, gang.

I've mentioned journalism and my previous life in the profession in passing a couple of times on this blog in some offhanded ways, but I've recently become fixated on some very specific and very pressing concerns regarding the fourth estate that bear examination.

On my recent trip to New York, I was hosted by someone I knew only very slightly having met her and hit it off when she was a potential ferry passenger and I was stuck in the glass box of my ticket booth. When I got off the bus and she hugged me and gave me keys to her apartment, we'd spent a total of 45 minutes, tops, talking to each other face to face and exchanged a handful of delightful emails over the months that followed.  She's a Columbia School of Journalism-trained professional and freelances for a number of papers including the Boston Globe, the Village Voice and the New York Daily News.  On the second day of my visit, we had a lengthy and passionate discussion of the current state and future of journalism, including the advent of the citizen journalist.  She feels strongly that there ought to be a distinction between professional reporting and crowd-sourced material.  While I tend to be more willing to entertain the possibility that a layman might produce copy worth considering, I share some of her concerns in that I'm not sure that consumers are diligent enough to deal with the responsibility of sorting through the wealth of information reported by non-institutional news sources (or reputable media --cough, Judith Miller, cough-- but that's another story).

What brought this notion bubbling to the surface of my junkyard-style mind is the widely reported notion that recent crackdowns on Occupy encampments were the result of a conference call between municipal officials in major cities across the country in conjunction with federal agencies including Homeland Security.  Let me say for the record that I find this idea entirely plausible and wouldn't be surprised to see real evidence surface that this was, in fact, the case, but as it stands now the story, which has been given play on Keith Olbermann and more recently in the U.S. edition of the U.K.'s The Guardian is unsubstantiated drivel.

The story originated on The Examiner, a "news" web site that publishes unsolicited stories by all comers.  Unlike professional news outlets, the stories are apparently unedited and unvetted (or, if they are either, it's not apparent in the error- and typo-ridden copy).  On November 15, a writer named Rick Ellis published a piece citing an anonymous Justice Department source who purportedly told Ellis that federal officials had orchestrated a nationwide response to the Occupy movement culminating in the violent eviction of the Oakland and NYC camps, among others.  The story grew legs and began clomping, Godzilla-like, through the Twitterverse.  Professional gadfly Michael Moore appeared on Keith Olbermann's show shortly thereafter and likewise announced that the crackdowns  were a federal/multi-municipal crackdown and Moore's stature lent credence to the notion.  The only problem was that his source for the story was Ellis' Examiner story.

The AP (generally a reputable news source) has reported with named sources that municipal leaders and police departments around the country have conferred with each other to compare notes on how they're handling the situations in their respective locations, but they explicitly deny making coordinated plans for eviction and there is no supporting evidence whatsoever for Ellis' most damning assertion -- that the feds orchestrated a coordinated national assault on the movement -- beyond his anonymous source in Justice.

Many people, like me, don't find the idea hard to believe.  Unfortunately, unlike me, many people have been willing to take the story on faith and declare it gospel throughout the great trash heap of the internet where it was devoured whole without a question because it was just such a deliciously juicy, damning tale.  If it hasn't appeared in a social media feed near you yet, expect to see it in 3..2...1...any second now, because on Friday noted author/activist Naomi Wolf through her name and reputation behind the story in a melodramatic Op Ed piece in the very respectable U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

To recap: An unknown author whose previous output was primarily pop-culture reportage and extended captions suddenly turns up with an anonymous high-level federal government source and self-publishes a highly explosive story of national importance on a web site that's the journalistic equivalent of Craigslist.  Two celebrity activist repeat the story and a feedback loop is created in which their reporting of the story is deemed confirmation of its veracity despite the fact that their source is the shady article in question.

So.  This is a big deal, friends.

For starters, it's a pretty egregious perversion of the ethical and professional standards of journalism.  There's a reason that major news organizations hesitate to accept anonymous sources and will generally move heaven and hell to dredge up some kind of corroboration.  Here's an excerpt from the New York Times' policy on anonymous sources:

Readers of The New York Times demand to know as much as possible about where we obtain our information and why it merits their trust. For that reason, we have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality.

The Times, like many other otherwise reputable news outlets, has been burned by anonymous sourcing because, as the policy suggest, it's just really easy to for someone to make shit up and then ask for anonymity so they can't be debunked.  In the case of the Examiner article, not only is the source anonymous, but there's no effort to give credibility to the source -- he could be a janitor at the Justice Department making assumptions based on things he overheard for all we know -- but there wasn't really a reason to, and Ellis knew it, which brings us to the the next problem.

Beyond the shoddy reporting of hobby-journalist Ellis, there's the issue of two reasonably well-respected media figures perpetuating the hackery.  Maybe we can write off Ellis' sloppy work on the grounds that he's not a professional and the web site he wrote for being little more than a message board putting on airs, but it's hard to give a pass to Moore and Wolf who, despite being info-tainment fence-sitters definitely know how reporting is supposed to work.  Of course the buck ultimately stops with the editors at the Guardian and the producers on Olbermann's show, who let the slipshod sourcing slide.  In short, the whole thing is a mockery of journalism in which all parties, both dabblers and professionals simply failed to do anything even remotely like due diligence and subsequently unleashed a shitstorm of rage and paranoia across the country.

What bothers me about this whole things more than the theoretical blow to the art of journalism is that it exposes how easy it is to convince people of things they want to hear and how lazy our facebook culture is.  I've watched this thing travel around getting liked and re-shared like crazy, and I've watched people post it to bolster discussions of bad behavior by the government.  And I've watched time and time again as someone with opposing views points out all of the things that I just did.  We've been living in a world where making political opponents look stupid for believing misinformation is practically a sport for long enough that I have to cringe when I see otherwise smart, thoughtful people being made to look like wingnuts because they hit share before they checked sources.

I have become extremely skeptical of pretty much everything that goes viral.  My family no longer sends me forwards (no loss) because every time I got an email citing some incredibly insidious and sadistic threat to my security, I would reply with a link to Snopes debunking it.  I got the distinct impression that I was hurting feelings by doing it and to some extent I understand -- no one wants to be a gull, but what amazed me, and what continues to amaze me in my social networking communities is how readily people continue to expose themselves in that way no matter how many times they get burned.

As the focus of Occupy becomes evictions, the movement becomes less relatable to the public at large.  Rallying around and perpetuating unproven conspiracy theories (no matter how likely they are to be true) creates a perfect opportunity for detractors.  The success of the movement so far has been in the dedication of its participants to polite, reasonable discourse, a taking of the moral high ground that has made it very hard for opponents to paint them as a bunch of fringe weirdos to be written off.  While there's an amount of sympathetic outrage directed at police misbehavior, the evictions look like the kind of anarchic chaos the public expects of protesters.  Protestors and supporters alike need to stay on message and focus on facts (there are plenty of real, proven outrages to chose from), and continue to cultivate an image that is knowledgeable and relatable rather than reactionary and explosive.

The Ellis story is gossip.  It's exciting, intriguing, it may even be true, but it's based on information from a person who may or may not exist.  Meanwhile the government has made and continues to make myriad decisions that create real hardship for huge swaths (say, 99%) of the American public.  The celebrity reporters who picked up the Ellis story had a responsibility to due diligence before they breathlessly passed it along as gospel.  The news organizations that gave them a forum likewise.  But at this point in history, some of the responsibility belongs to the audience, at least if the audience cares to be respected.

I let my schadenfreude be my guide: It's super fun to laugh at the opposition when they get all gaga about some "news" story that turns out to be utterly false so I try to make damn sure I won't be found on the receiving end.


  1. Pardon me for missing this post until just now, but allow me to extend my wholehearted endorsement of your thesis, especially the part about how we consumers are responsible to vet our sources ourselves. I have a theory our innate "bullshit detectors," normally acute, have atrophied after nearly two generations of exposure to countless hours of "commercial speak" on the radio and TV. The ability we've developed to process endless dishonest sales pitches on TV (i.e. to ignore them) hampers our ability to filter the truth from fiction (or PR) in our news sources. Every scrap of information that reaches us on the internet has a provenance, and I believe we need to learn to understand and analyze those sources.

    So, yeah! What you said. I agree with you. And I think the press is the Fourth Estate, not the Fifth. The other three are Royalty, Church, and Merchants. (If I remember my 8th grade world history class correctly). Of course that "fourth estate" status was defined by a journalist.

  2. You are correct sir. Duly noted and corrected. I do believe I somehow managed to learn the term "fourth estate" (ha! not very well, apparently) as a nickname for "the press" without ever being introduced to how it came to be. Thank you for spackling the hole in my education!

  3. Hey! I didn't know you were a journalist! I was a journalist too! Well said. Are you watching the Lewiston and Bangor papers kick the butt of the Press Herald these days?

  4. Oh, Pat, I have thrown up my hands on the subject of the Press Herald. If the new (now previous, yes?) owner was honest, he'd acknowledge that he rebuilt readership on the corpse of reportage: people buy that paper because their child or hamster is next to the weather report, their photo is in one of the myriad "society" type spreads, and a disproportional number of above-the-fold headlines are vomit-inducing puns about a human-interest photo with an extended cap. Lewiston and Bangor do crazy things like write their own stories on local topics instead of buying the first two paragraphs of the AP wire on it. Too harsh? I dunno...I'm a touch cynical on this subject.

  5. Lovely to see you in the comments, by the by.