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

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.

During one of the more hotly contested gun debates, the meme I mentioned once before about Obama saying he didn’t think people should be allowed to own guns kept flying all over my Facebook feed. Again, in checking this all the way back to the single source that INDEPENDENTLY noted this quote, I found it to be a second-hand quote from a third-rate author.

I honestly don’t check everything I see against multiple sources. Some things aren’t that important while others I know full well are likely to be pure, uncut bullshit.

Still, it’s hard to be truly informed when people are constantly fed bits and bites of idiocy as fact and then allowed to go unchecked throughout life.

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

  1. E-mail forwards make me crazy, because if I don’t generally believe every word out of Drunk Sexist Uncle Biff’s mouth, why should I believe anything he e-mails me? Yet people do believe it, and post it to Facebook and there’s a hundred outraged comments about removing the Pledge of Allegiance from schools and forcing kindergarteners to learn about sex because Obama, and so on.
    I wonder if back in the day they came home with supermarket tabloids and ran over to the neighbors’ and were like, “OH MY GOD IRMA THEY FOUND A KID WHO LOOKS LIKE A BAT.”

  2. Google “United Nations International Health Organization.” You’ll find a bunch of blog posts purporting to document just how bad other countries’ health care is compared with ours. There’s just one problem. The report, ostensibly published in Investors Business Daily, never existed. Neither does the UN International Health Organization. I wrote a blog post more than three years ago debunking the whole thing, but not a day goes by that a web search doesn’t bring multiple visitors to my blog looking for this thing. It’s a vampire meme; it’s never going away and people are going to die because of it.

  3. drives me nuts too… seems like most people can’t even be bothered to do a snopes check or even a google… first paper (small town daily, circ 10k+/-) I worked on back in the early 60’s had a managing/copy editor who was hell-on-wheels and a sports writer who was sloppy, especially if he had to cover a co. commissioners meeting. Got his facts upside down once. The next day, after the editor got back from his usual liquid lunch at the Elks, he steamed into the newsroom with blood in his eyes and roared at the sport, and at the same time pounded the sport’s desk until papers were flying everywhere and the air turned blue. We were on-press and the pressmen in the basement said they heard every word of it. One of the linotype guys came in and pulled the editor away from the sport (who soon left to take up promoting pro-wrestling in little Wisconsin towns) and took him out back for some fresh -20 air (and a snort, likely). I was 16 and took mostly group photos with a Speed Graphic 4×5; forever after I took the cutline names down before taking the pic and I made every damn Johnson and Olson spell out their names in full.

  4. I have the same problem with my mother. She sends me forwards of these bullshit emails she gets from my gun nut, rabid, ex-brother-in-law and other idiots. I used to send her back the email with the correct information (as well as sources she could refer to), but one day she said ‘why are your sources right and mine wrong?’. This is the same premise that FOX must work with. I finally told my mother one day that I was going to delete any and all emails she sends to me and not read them, so if she had anything she really wanted me to know, she better call me and not email me. Even faced with facts, she doesn’t want to believe the truth. Those emails just reinforce their views, so of course they are true. Wish I had a solution.

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