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Sunday, February 21, 2010

The record, and how to get on it

Today's topic: "How do we get the truth on the record?"

You may think that blogging makes this task easy. No matter what piece of information you seek, someone somewhere will have jotted it down on his or her blog.

Yeah, but: Blogs are not "the record." The record, it turns out, is a strange and mysterious thing. If you have enough money and power and persistence, you can get a fake story on the record -- and you can keep genuine information off.

To see a demonstration of how powerful interests can massage the record, check out Brad Friedman's excellent coverage (here and here) of the "ACORN sting" conducted by James O'Keefe (the guy later arrested for breaking into a Senator's office) and faux-prostitute Hannah Giles, under the supervision of rising conservative media superstar Andrew Breitbart.

Friedman has proven -- and Giles has confirmed -- that the story told to the media was wrong: O'Keefe did not enter ACORN offices dressed in an outrageous pimp costume. Giles has admitted that the pimp footage was strictly "B roll." (That's a Hollywood term meaning "subsidiary footage.")

It turns out that the video was edited and dubbed in a highly deceptive fashion. A later investigation revealed that, inside the offices, O'Keefe was dressed conservatively and told a story which differed significantly from the one which Breitbart reported.

The major media covered the case in a robustly anti-ACORN fashion, after Breitbart and Fox had pressured them into doing so. Brad Friedman's coverage should correct "the record." And yet, oddly enough, you won't see Brad Friedman cited in Wikipedia's entries on O'Keefe or Giles -- and Friedman will probably never be so cited, for reasons which I shall soon explain.

Breitbart has gone on national television numerous times to push his utterly misleading version of events. The New York Times published Breitbart's fake story, citing O'Keefe as a source -- even though O'Keefe is a young, reactionary ideologue with no journalistic credentials.

Our journal of record simply refuses to print the truth. Indeed, when pressed, the NYT announced that it "stands behind" its misleading coverage.

This piece by Eric Boehlert reveals how major media organs can be turned into myth-making instruments:
Friedman has been trying to get the newspaper of record to correct its inaccurate reporting on the pimp issue -- reporting that appeared as recently as last month, following O'Keefe's New Orleans arrest. When one of Friedman's readers contacted the newspaper urging the same request, the reader was informed, via email by a Times senior editor for standards, that because O'Keefe claimed he'd been dressed as a pimp inside ACORN offices, and because O'Keefe had appeared on Fox News and made that claim, the Times did not need to post a correction.

Wrote the Times standards editor: "We believe" O'Keefe. (Yikes!)

That's nuts. It's one thing to be suckered in by Breitbart and O'Keefe's pimp costume tale, it's another for the Times to now defend its erroneous reporting.
Boehlert goes on to demonstrate that CNN, NPR, the New York Post, the Dallas Morning News and many other important news outlets all reported the fake "dressed as a pimp" yarn, yet have not printed any retractions. That's what you call "working the press."

And so it is that, 20 years from now -- fifty years from now, a hundred years from now -- Brietbart's phoney-baloney version of the story will be the one that historians will use to create a portrait of our time. And in our own time, the Breitbart version is the one that has entered into popular consciousness.

The ACORN pseudo-sting reminds me of an (arguably) more important incident in which this humble blog participated: The outing of Case Closed author Gerry Posner as a serial plagiarist. Although Slate writer Jack Shafer published the pieces that deep-sixed Posner, the "heavy lifting" on that story was done by Cannonfire reader and contributor "G," whose first name I have given as Greg.

Alas, much of Greg's sleuthing is still largely unrecognized by that unnerving, amorphous entity we call "the record." Here is the length and breadth of the Posner plagiarism controversy, as per Wikipedia:
Posner was the chief investigative reporter at the Daily Beast. Following the revelation that a number of Posner's stories for the Beast contained portions plagiarized from articles in other publications, Posner resigned from the Beast... According to Posner, the plagiarism was inadvertent and the result of the "compressed deadlines" of the Beast and confusing his assembled research with his own writing in the "master files" he assembled on each story.
This explanation is one that even a child wouldn't buy. Shafer wrote a very amusing follow-up column on the excuses offered by plagiarists.

Read the Wikipedia entry on Posner. Most of it is sheer puff, obviously supplied by Gerry himself: ""After Case Closed, everyone thinks Oswald did it," wrote Newsweek." (This is true, if you define "everyone" so as not to include the vast majority of the American public.)

For a brief time, the Posner entry on Wikipedia offered a lengthier account of the man's journalistic sins. A link went to this Cannonfire post, largely written by Greg, who documents not just Posner's penchant for plagiarism but also his habit of altering quotations.

Wikipedia deep-sixed all of that material and refuses to allow any citations of Cannonfire material. This, despite the fact that Greg wrote to a very high standard. This, despite the fact that no-one has ever mounted a counter-argument to anything he had to say.

Slate's Jack Shafer, considered citable by Wikipedia, worked to no small degree from Greg's material. Greg, speaking for himself, is considered unreliable -- but Greg as filtered through Shafer is considered reliable. Can you explain that situation to me?

Wikipedia's head honchos told Greg that it has a policy against citing non-mainstream sources, such as blogs. This blog especially.

Wikipedia says that it applies the "no-blogs" policy with particular strictness when it comes to entries on living individuals. Actually, I can understand the rationale for this decision: No-one wants Wikipedia to turn into a trash-heap filled with waspish, vengeance-fueled personal attacks.

It is also pretty clear that Wikipedia does not want to cede territory to anyone who believes that JFK was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. Believe it or not, I also have some sympathy for this attitude. Although I am convinced that a conspiracy took place, I also know the JFK assassination "buff" community pretty well. That community is filled with people who are contentious, paranoid and downright obnoxious. If Wikipedia's editors did not keep them on a short leash, the results would be grim.

But Gerry Posner presents us with a special case.

Critics of Case Closed were able to pinpoint at least three instances in which Gerry pretended to have conducted interviews with key witnesses with whom he never actually spoke. Wikipedia's profile of Posner does not mention that outrageous breach of ethics, and the editors will not allow you to rewrite the entry in order to include this information.

That book has many other problems. I am not talking about disagreements over the interpretation of evidence; I am talking about serious issues of journalistic integrity. For example, the hardback edition implies that Posner commissioned a scientific study which was actually conducted for a television program; a lengthy explanatory footnote was added to the softcover edition.

That's why the JFK "buffs" have always reviled Posner in a way they do not revile other "Oswald did it" writers, such as Vincent Bugliosi and David Belin. Although we do not agree with Bugliosi, Gerry Posner belongs in a class by himself.

(Serious questions have surrounded Posner's other works. One of these days, I'll deliver that long-promised piece about his book on Mengele.)

My point is this: If Posner's earlier examples of shoddy journalism had "gone on the record" -- if, for example, Wikipedia's entry had mentioned something about the false interviews -- then The Daily Beast would never have hired Posner. And the publishers of Miami Babylon (Posner's most recent book) might have been spared some humiliation as well. (This blog will probably publish a piece about that book soon.)

Consider this hypothetical poser: Even if Cannonfire were able to prove that Gerry plagiarized portions of his most recent book, how could we get the information into Wikipedia? How can we get the truth onto the record?

Doing so would be difficult.

It's not just a matter of factual accuracy. The facts must be published in an acceptable forum. Anyone amending the Posner entry cannot cite Cannonfire or any other blog, even one that maintains a good reputation. Yet Wikipedia will publish what Posner has to say about himself -- even though Posner is a confessed plagiarist, and even though Posner alters quotes.

All of which brings us back to dear old Andy Breitbart.

Wikipedia, which does not consider Cannonfire worthy of citation -- and which seems to have a similarly dismissive attitude toward Brad Friedman's blog -- has no problem citing Breitbart's Big Government website. Wikipedia also cites Breitbart's other "Big" sites.

Brietbart's sites are not blogs.

Bloggers, it seems, are supposed to bitch and scream from the sidelines; we may never be considered players in the great game. Even if we do original investigative reporting, even if all of our facts check out, even if we dot every i and cross every T, and even if no-one counters our presentation of evidence, we mere bloggers are never considered citation-worthy sources of information.

Yet Breitbart and his minions can get on the record.

The New York Times considers O'Keefe -- but not Brad Friedman -- a reliable source of information.

The Washington Times and Glenn Beck and FOX are also part of "the record." Posner, wherever he ends up, will also surely contribute to "the record." These entities are considered citable.

And what is the difference between Breitbart's media empire and a humble blog such as the one you are perusing right now? Near as I can tell, it all comes down to a single word:

Eventually, I could see Wikipedia incorporating color coding over some disputed points. Click on the color link and up pops a divergent view. Of course this will prove difficult to investigate and verify the authenticity of divergent viewpoints, but it could happen someday.

I feel that the head of Hustler did a dis service by not exposing that as many as half of the original 12 that warlock hunted Bill Clinton were themselves doing what they were attacking Bill Clinton for doing.

We know of 2 or 3 of the original 12, but the number may have actually been double that amount or more, but the head of Hustler decided not to publicize his list.

That decision to not nip the investigation in the bud with the hypocritical truth probably had an indirect affect on Hillary Clinton's run for the presidency.
Sometimes I notice that the newspaper baseball box scores do not show all the names of the players who played in the game.
I think the best opportunity anyone has in getting this "on the record" is to detail coverage of the lawsuit filed by Katherine Conway-Russe, the woman at ACORN in Philadelphia that was filmed without consent.
Perhaps, Conway-Russell can have the full footage made available vis a vis the lawsuit, and then made available on the net. But maybe she doesn't want the whole issue revisited that way-hard to say.
As far as Wikipedia is concerned, I once went to update some information on Daniel Hopsicker after reading Barry and the Boys and found that it was deleted. Apparently,with two controversial books under his belt, he is not considered legitimate enough to have a wikipedia entry. ugh.
ps- here's a good article on the lawsuit filed by the woman at ACORN.

It details how ACORN resisted speaking with Giles and O'Keefe, amongst other things.
what is the difference between Breitbart's media empire and a humble blog such as the one you are perusing right now? Near as I can tell, it all comes down to a single word:


Maybe it's not only that. Could another difference be... the minds of the readers?
It would be interesting if money did play a role in how they edited stories.

However they generally seem pretty good compared to mainstream media. If you look at how the media bends over backwards now to avoid offending China on any given issue it is embarrassing. I think it is due to the fact that the media has merged into a few giants all of which want to get into China and I suspect all of which have rules against any comments seen as unfriendly to China.

I would love to see someone discuss breaking up the media monopolies to pre Clinton size. Gore mentioned it when he ran for the White House and I think that was why the press turned on him. But with the internet media it now might be possible to raise the issue and survive.
Joseph (as least, as I read this entry) is not arguing that money directly influences how Wikipedia edits. Rather it does so indirectly. Only major media citation sourcing is allowed – and money allows one to publish as major media (e.g. Breitbart).

I used to think of Wikipedia more generously. But my experience, and that of others I’ve spoken with, has led me to realize that Wikipedia displays a great deal of bias. It’s not bad in science/math – but with politics, history, culture, etc. the inherent biases can really become clear. Part of the problem might be that the stated Wikipedian ideal is not truth-seeking per se, but rather what they refer to as the wisdom of the consensus "hive mind" – which basically comes down to establishment consensus.
Great column!

Take heart: 50 or 100 years from now, there's no guarantee what will be. What's "the record" on the Roman empire? Nowadays graffiti and pottery from the time count about as much as Caesar's Blog from Gaul.

I certainly don't believe Wikipedia will be "the record" or even exist with anything like its present, wholly undeserved authority in 50 years.

As for the specific cases here: We can hope O'Keefe and Breitbart will be exposed in court, either because of the ACORN suit or the criminal case. I know it's a crapshoot, but the prosecutor in the Landrieu case may turn out to be honest and commmitted. (Her name is Jan Mann, we'll see.)

But that's not enough consolation for you or for Brad. You are absolutely right. Again, take heart in the impermanence of "the record," and in the inevitable decline of these increasingly discredited sources - the New York Times and Wikipedia both. A better day will come.
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