Fact-free reporting + internet lemmings = “the real story”

from First Draft…

I was at home last week to take part in a lecture series at a nearby university’s branch campus. The gig was a good one: Lecture on media to a group of “lifetime learners,” who were all amazingly attuned to the media, the world at large and me. Just before I left to give my lecture that morning, Mom was reading through her email, which included a “forward” that my grandfather had sent her regarding “the real story” about Trayvon Martin. The email included a number of “facts” about Martin, including his busts for selling drugs, his violent outbursts at certain people and his attack on a bus driver.

“Wow,” Mom said. “I didn’t know any of that…”
“Where did it come from?” I asked.
“Your grandfather.”
I paused. “No. I mean where did HE get it from?”
“I really don’t know. It’s an email forward.”

The email bugged me a great deal of the drive out to the U, particularly the part about the bus driver, so before I went into the lecture hall, I started digging around
online. I found a handful of sites that referred to this incident, all of which referred to one source: a blogger named Dan Linenhan at Wagist.com.

That source’s source? An alleged tweet from Martin’s cousin that said: “Yu ain’t tell me you swung on a bus driver.” Even digging a bit deeper, other reports argued the tweet was sent to a different Trayvon Martin. Other issues regarding drug sales (a Michelle Malkin special) later again turned out to be untrue and associated with another Trayvon. Although she retracted her comments later, other sources (like this email) kept reporting it as fact.

When I brought all this back to Mom, she was a little disenchanted with the whole process.

“How can they print that stuff if it’s not true?”

I don’t know if it’s generational or not, but trust in the press was germane to my older family members. I still remember my grandmother being distraught over a misprinting in the local newspaper regarding an event at the senior center. She went expecting a fish fry, only to find out that the paper’s notice had the wrong date. She couldn’t really understand that.

In her mind, if the newspaper said there was a fish fry at the senior center on Friday, well, dammit, there had better be a fish fry at the senior center on Friday.

Now, well, who knows?

For years, I’ve taught journalism students the most basic rule about facts: If your mother says she loves you, go check it out. However, I can’t tell you the number of people who rely on one source for information, get by with the “I just know it” paradigm or never stop to think that just because someone said it, that doesn’t make it true.

I was flipping through some emails when I found that Eddie Gaedel’s bat was going up for auction. Gaedel was the ultimate stunt plied by baseball’s most amusing owner, Bill Veeck. When he owned the moribund St. Louis Browns, Veeck sent the midget up to bat, wearing the number “1/8.” Here’s the quote from the auction company that drove me nuts:

“Veeck was behind some of the most famous, and infamous, ballpark stunts in the history of America’s pastime,” said Chris Ivy, Director of Sports at Heritage Auctions, “including Cleveland Municipal Stadium’s disastrous 10 cent beer night in 1974. It was his 1951 stunt with Gaedel as the smallest batter in league history, however, that he is most remembered for.”

Anyone with half a brain, a touch of baseball history or even access to fucking Wikipedia could tell you that Veeck had NOTHING TO DO WITH 10-cent beer night in 1974. He sold the Indians in 1949 to deal with the financial obligations associated with his divorce. He never owned the team again.

He was, however, associated with “Disco Demolition Night” in 1979 when he owned the Chicago White Sox.

Still, this important-sounding dude said it. Why bother to check it?

I have also told students that I try to teach by one basic rule: If I know the answer and I can tell it to you, I will. If I don’t know, I’m not going to bullshit you. I’ll tell you I don’t know but then I’ll go and look it up so that I CAN tell it to you.

That approach seems to be in the minority these days. The more bullshit you spew, the more you can get away with.

During the Republican presidential debates, the Associated Press limited its fact-checking of Michelle Bachmann’s assertions, noting that without such a “quota” her bullshit would “overload” the debate stories. In other words, you’re so full of shit that we can’t keep a lid on it, so we’ll let you get away with some of it.

More at http://www.first-draft.com/2013/07/fact-free-reporting-internet-lemmings-the-real-story.html