Blogs and the wicked mixing of fact and fantasy

Conor Brady is not impressed with the ‘citizen journalism’ of the internet. He sees in the rise of bloggers a “concomitant decline of fact-based journalism and reporting” Worse, he argues, “In this bizarre new order, anonymous or pseudonymous people put out rumour as if it were fact, invention as if it were science and innuendo as if it had been adjudicated in a court of law”.

‘Edit first, then publish” used to be the immutable law of information-processing in the days of ‘old media’ – print, radio and television. It even survived into the early phases of the internet when most of the news content was generated by people with a background in journalism, accustomed to applying some basic standards of validation to what they put out. But it didn’t last very long. “Publish everything first, then let the reader edit it,” became the new maxim. Why not? Now anyone can build a website for a few euro. Editing, evaluating and making judgments is time-consuming, costly and boring. It’s so much more fun and so much less trouble to lorry everything up onto the site without worrying whether it’s inaccurate or even harmful.

It’s at worst when:

…the untruths and the rumours and the fantasies are interspersed among information sources that are valid and reliable. It becomes impossible to know what is true and what is invented. An interview with the State Governor may appear plausible until the reader realises that it is juxtaposed with an article written by a crew-member of an alien craft that has landed at a secret location in the Nevada desert.

  • Pete Baker

    “Edit first, then publish” used to be the immutable law of information processing in the days of ‘old media’

    Oh dear. Conor doesn’t quite get it does he? Who did he imagine was editing previously?

    And now it’s, according to Conor.. “Publish everything first, then let the reader edit it”

    Well.. no. The same process takes place in the writing as before, the difference is that there isn’t the filter of the line-manager – accountable to the owner of the particular media journal, station, whatever. Then there’s the instant and, more importantly, the immediate reaction and, if necessary, public correction of what is published.

    Of course, in Conor’s world we’re just an finite number of monkeys with a finite number of typewriters..

  • Pete,

    You’ve summararily dismissed some highly pertainent questions in the mix. Aren’t you ignoring the chaos that is the commenting zone on Slugger? That second para amply describes the dilemma of trying to decide which of the “anonymous or pseudonymous” is speaking truth and which the dissembling nonsense.

  • Pete Baker

    The chaos of the commenting, on Slugger and elsewhere, is not necessarily a given with blogs, Mick.. we have ocassional, if recurring, problems with that chaos.. but it’s not an editing process in the way Conor imagines it.. and it wasn’t dismissed, I did describe it – “the instant and more importantly, the immediate reaction and, if necessary, public correction of what is published.”

    Btw, I doubt Conor is thinking about the commenting zone when he uses that particular phrase.. he’s talking about you and me.

    The other stage, which seems to be missed by Conor, but which you wrote about in the Irish Times, is of course the interaction between different blogs.

  • I’ll just keep reading …….http://www.regrettheerror.com ……
    reporting on corrections, retractions, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the media.

  • missfitz

    well, i think you guys are being a bit hypersensitive about this issue- for obvious reasons of course!

    Surely the issues are pertinent. I’m thinking of some of the material I’ve been reading over the past few days on linked sites and others. Some of the material is hair-raising, inaccurate and quite alarming.

    As in all areas of life, there has to be a separation between those that are behaving responsibly and those that patently arent. Surely those associated with slugger count themselves among the responsible?

    I think the message in Conor’s piece is that one needs to maintain an element of distance from some of the sites, and make judgements accordingly

  • TAFKABO

    I think the anonymity aspect of internet fora is more of a strength than a weakness.
    How often do we see reports by journalists or newspapers being dismissed out of hand because of the baggage that said journalist or Newspaper carries?
    It’s such a cop out to do this, yet it happens all the time.
    Not so with the anonymous comment, it stands or falls on its own merits, nothing else.

  • OK, no contest. Blogs are easily turned into an instrumental part of just about anyone’s campaign of disinformation. How many of these small-time operators can spare the time or resources to fact check? We now know that the time constant for even the uptown sites is as long as 132 days.

    Bloggers were instrumental in sabotaging the 60 Minutes story about Dubya’s weekend warrior wipeout. A purported expert with the handle Buckhead wrote with apparent expertise that proportional spacing and other characters ere not available on typewrites until after Bush was fully discharged and ignited a firestorm on the right wing blogs that was just too luscious for the cable media to pass up. While this was fully false, it was repeated amongst right-wing blogs until it has the appearance of fact. Later, the LA Times ran Buckhead to ground he was identified as a cunning Georgia lawyer with ties to knuckledragger legal groups like the Federalist Society. This is outlined at length in Mary Mapes article in Vanity Fair (where, unlike blogs, they have the resources to employ fact-checkers).

    The moral of the story? Don’t believe anything you read on the Internet, not even this.

    Case at hand, however, says more of the human condition than the troglodyte hijinks that saddled the world with Dubya (only 1100 days to go)

    That Seigenthaler was in cahoots with the Grassy Knoll Gang is not just false, it is absurd. It is absurd with great feckin’ bells on it, as absurd as Chevy Chase doing a headlong tumble on SNL. As absurd as Daniel O’Donnell or Paris Hilton.

    Yet the bleating goes on about Wikipedia but not about the drooling Gomers who actually swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. For my money, the Gomers are a greater danger.

    Never underestimate the power of knuckleheads in large groups.

  • What’s interesting about Smilin’ Jim’s Barbary Coast Travel Agency, as well as most of the comments left on Slugger (and blogs generally), is the paradox. Smilin’ Jim points to “Buckhead”, a sockpuppet/handle. And once his biography is revealed, suddenly his assertions of fact are suspect – because of his biography, not because of any need to actually disprove arguments or assertions of fact – the most basic sort of ad hominem argumentation. Ironic that this critique of pseudonyms is being offered by someone using a pseudonym, no?

    Normally I’d say ad hominems are the worst argument, but Conor does have a point here.

    One sock puppet dissing another. All the time. It’s part of why it’s so easy to discredit blogs. It’s the reason reputable letters pages in newspapers are supposed to verify the contact details of a correspondent before printing a letter, and that reputable newspapers don’t print anonymous letters. The most basic test of your intellectual integrity is your willingness to put your name to something.

    Death to sock puppets.

  • Yeah – and death to the MSM full of journo-whores. But I mean that in a caring way….

  • Mick Fealty

    Four real names in a nine post thread, that’s got to be a first in a long time!

  • George

    Let’s make it a round 5 out of 10.

    On bloggers. Saw the fascinating Rocky road to Dublin at the weekend where Trinity students in 1967 were complaining about how the Irish Times letters pages didn’t publish certain dissenting views.

    I suppose the same could be said of papers like today’s Newsletter. The only place you would get people giving a dissenting view to anything that newspaper prints is on forums like this one.

    Although, I recall my boss telling me to always remember that people who write letters to newspapers complaining about articles are invariably mad. The madsers have now found the blogosphere to peddle their views without restriction.

  • Henry Porter

    Mick

    Four real names in a nine post thread, that’s got to be a first in a long time!

    How do you know they are real names?

  • harry flashman

    Tell us more Smilin’ Jim, so the memo which was written on Microsoft Wordpro using Times New Roman font a mere decade or so before it was invented was actually genuine?

    Wow amazing, so that is why Dan Rather and the whole 60 Minutes team had their asses handed up to them on a plate with a sprig of parsley as garnish then? Some guy called Buckhead just made the whole thing up did he, wow them Blogs be powerful things!

  • Mick Fealty

    Henry,

    Because I know them in real life. I as sure as anyone can me that I know Smilin Jim is real too, partly because he used to comment under his own name.

  • Tara

    “It’s the reason reputable letters pages in newspapers are supposed to verify the contact details of a correspondent before printing a letter”
    Great emphasis on *SUPPOSED*… I never checked. I admit it, if it looked convincing it ran. So really there are sockpuppets in the papers as well, they just have names instead of handles.

  • Grassy Noel

    I’d imagine the reason people use false names is because they are aware that the letters pages & blogsites are crawling with weirdos and lunatics of every conceivable shade, and while they may consider themselves to be sane and just voicing a rational opinion on something, they’d rather not take the risk of being stalked or having their family threatened or potentially terrorised by some (funda)mentalist with a grudge because of a disagreement over creamery prices in leitrim – which is of course, in itself, a totally irrational fear/phobia.

    You will notice, however, that I myself am concealing my true identity.

  • Great emphasis on *SUPPOSED*… I never checked. I admit it, if it looked convincing it ran. So really there are sockpuppets in the papers as well, they just have names instead of handles.

    A few US jourrnalism school classes have made names for themselves spoofing the NY Times, Tara, so I wouldn’t feel bad.

    Trust has been on the way out for a long time in media, on all sides – not just towards the journalists/editors/owners. The blog paradigm slouches towards the other extreme, paranoia.

    Conor’s right that it doesn’t end well for people who like facts. He’s wrong if he thinks anythingm much can be done about it, hence we end up with Googlezon/epic, and newspapers withered into newsletters for the elderly and the elite (who, if they are to remain the elite for very long, need actual facts to guide their decisions).

  • because he used to comment under his own name.

    Yup, and the old fart still does if whimsey counts.

  • topdeckomnibus

    Well there is another use of the internet considering that the media is well controlled.

    http://www.matron-mcgill-decd.com/

    http://www.preventableterror.co.uk

    Two sites not written primarily to inform the prurient. Written to challenge variously Chief constables, Attorney General, Prime Minister and Home Secretary.

    And what happens is that the mainstream media (sensing a coup after the PRO releases about Vera Atkins and Horst Kopkow last year together with a press leak by MI6) use the internet as a resource and then contact the man behind the sites … who has never been at pains to promote anonymity.

    The media (in the McGill case being Sunday Times, Mail on Sunday and BBC related) will not refer to the website in any report because referring to a site makes their legal people do jitters about laws of libel (or means to gag) but they will cherrypick the web sites and wordsmith the pickings.

  • Tell us more Smilin’ Jim, so the memo which was written on Microsoft Wordpro using Times New Roman font a mere decade or so before it was invented was actually genuine?

    Okey Doakey Brother ‘arry, since you asked:

    Things have really slipped at Troll School nowadays. If you are going to repeat this nonsense, then at least do Buckhead the courtesy of quoting it accurately ( talk about sloppy trollsmanship).

    The original piece which appeared in freerepublic.com, on 9/8/04 just hours after the original 60 Minutes broadcast is:

    “Every single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman. In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts. The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers.… I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old.”

    WordPro must be an embellishment added by subsequent, technologically illiterate BS artists since it is not contained in the original piece of black propaganda. I cannot speak to that other than to point out that back in the good old days we manly men did it with hardware instead of software: Proportional spacing, was available on the 1967 Model D (I even rented one to type my thesis in ’72). Ya wanna call Big Blue a liar?

    The infamous “th” was even found on Bush documents, “office memos”, submitted by the US Government to 60 Minutes and which dated back as far as 1968.

    But the single, most glaring violation of good trollsmanship was blurting out that Times New Roman was not invented before 1972. Stanley Morison invented it in 1932, the year we elected FDR.. Yer gonna be cleanin’ erasers for the next month for that ‘un, youngster. 15 additional yards for failure to Google.

    It should be obvious to everyone by now that the black propaganda part of this episode was wildly successful and propelled by the blog. All it took was people who did not know squat to quote someone else that didn’t know squat: “It has been reported on other threads that…….yadayadayada” (note that my data is referenced to published organs that employ fact checkers or to God hisself, IBM, but not to blogs or Wikipedia).

    It should also be obvious that it could easily have been swatted down except for the spineless, craven Suits at CBS and the rapaciousness of the tabloid TV and cable media.

    We are running a weekly special on seaborne adventure tours to the orient. Drop in sometime.

  • harry Flashman

    I’m not a troll Smiler you clearly haven’t a clue what a troll is if you call me one, I’m making a legitimate post in a comments section, got that? Not too hard now is it?

    Certainly Times New Roman was invented in the 1930s but it was not used in wordprocessors until the 1980s.

    But c’mon man, are you still in Alice in Wonderland world? Do you really believe that the memo was genuine? Seriously is that where you’re at? Even after the rest of the sane world accepted it was a fake? Man you’re really a true believer! Bush Derangement Syndrome has gotten you bad.

  • EWI

    Henry,

    Because I know them in real life. I as sure as anyone can me that I know Smilin Jim is real too, partly because he used to comment under his own name.

    Unti I saw the Guardian(?) interview, I had always thought that ‘Mick Fealty’ was a pseudonym to (fealty being a real word).

  • Grassy Noel

    Let’s be honest about it – anyone with ambitions to do anything in the public arena is looking for attention, plain and simple. They may have genuine other motives as well, but at the root of it, it’s all attention-seeking.

    As for the rush to be the first to break a story regsardless of accuracy etc., look at the world of media-whoredom and 5-minute celebrity today. The price people are willing to pay for any kind of fame makes house prices look like a bargain deal. People happily consent to being made to look like a complete idiot/slut/scumbag etc. in the public spotlight if necessary, as long as it causes enough controversy to allow them get their toe in the door of the celebrity-inhabited wonderland. So who cares if you have to libel somebody or completely misrepresent the facts of a story? Three months later those responsible for completely destroying someone’s reputation or career or worse could be on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’/Big Brother/Hell’s kitchen or some other bullschit reality TV programme and everyone’s forgotten about it.