When Should I Get Upset at a Fake Story?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 6 2014 9:07 PM

When Should I Get Upset at a Fake Story?

I'm about to take leave of this blog for a few short weeks—explanation in the morning*—but what I'd observed as a long Sunday of ignoring the Internet is now being seen as part of a cover-up. Patterico jabs my colleague, Mark Joseph Stern, for errantly including a hoax story in a piece attempting to rebut Ross Douthat's column about the gay left's victory in the culture war. As the correction states, Stern "originally linked the words 'far from fanciful' to a TopekasNews article​ that claimed a restaurant had ejected a gay man telling him 'no gay eating here,' " but that was a hoax. "Remember how Dave Weigel of Slate mocked Charles C. Johnson for falling for a hoax story from a satirical edition of The Daily Princetonian?" asks Patterico. The implication is that this blog (and the rest of the media) went soft on Stern, revealing a double standard, and possibly suggesting that I cover up stories that make the left look bad.

This is a good opportunity to explain why I cover what I cover. Items appear on this blog if they hit one of a few buttons. Do they cover something I'm interested in? Have I written about the topic before? Will people click on it if I write it now? My January item about Johnson's botched story passed all three tests. Johnson, a conservative reporter who'd been adept at finding fresh stories through intense research, had come across my radar for a couple of strange stories. In October, he teamed up with Joel Gilbert—a director best known for making a documentary that alleged Barack Obama was the illegitimate son of a communist poet, and then distributing millions of DVDs of that documentary—for a reason-defying story Cory Booker's Senate race in New Jersey. Anti-Booker activists claimed that the mayor did not really live in Newark. When BuzzFeed debunked the story, Johnson's publication insisted that "the sources quoted in the article, not its author, made the claim." It was very strange.

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Three months later New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick wrote a lengthy re-examination of the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. Johnson followed this with a story about how, at Princeton 24 years earlier, Kirkpatrick had "showed off his naked body" by posing nude in public for an art film, joining an annual streak across campus, and—ah, here was the problem. The first two stories were true (if not really relevant to Kirkpatrick's Benghazi story), but more accusations of nudity were sourced to an obvious parody edition of the Daily Princetonian. I talked to Johnson and the editor of this story, and the bogus facts were removed from a rewritten article. 

So, why didn't I show the same interest in Stern's piece? One: I didn't notice it. Perhaps I should read everything at Slate, but I don't. Not as closely as I was watching a conservative reporter who'd published an explosive-yet-wrong story.** Two: Embarassing as his error was, it wasn't as pivotal to the story as the parody piece was to Johnson's story about Kirkpatrick. When Stern took out the bogus link, he inserted a link to an actual news story about a man who claimed to have been ejected from Walmart because he was gay. Stern's point, that anti-gay discrimination still occurs, was bruised but alive.

Three: Had I noticed Stern's link to the fake piece, what would I have written? Shame on my colleague for linking to a bogus story about discrimination, but good for him for finding a real story about it? This blog has taken a firm stand against phony viral stories, but Stern's moment of bogosity was only part of a longer piece. Had he written an entire item how discrimination was "far from fanciful," based entirely on a fake story, I'd have attached the stone of shame

*Spoiler: book leave.

**The "Booker doesn't live in Newark" piece went viral, with the candidate's opponent calling a press conference to draw attention to it.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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