Rss

Apparently, you *are* entitled to your own facts now

Everything you read in newspapers is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge. ~Erwin Knoll

I ended up spending a fair amount of time disproving an obviously wrong newspaper story last night. It didn’t work.

In college, I was a member of the Stanford Band, a group I keep up with via Facebook and alumni e-mails. They were featured in a Miami Herald front page story this weekend, about their antics and their upcoming performance at the Orange Bowl pregame.

Imagine my surprise when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Band was banned from performing at halftime. Surprised, because the story is totally wrong.

The Chron story sources an MSNBC story, which itself cites no sources, and whose URL suggests it is a local affil item submitted to MSNBC. The MSNBC story’s facts are all from the Miami Herald write, and is likely its only source, and uncredited at that. Here’s the last two grafs of the Herald write:

South Florida is not exactly Arkansas, but cautious Orange Bowl organizers have reduced the opportunity for indignity by keeping both college bands off the field at halftime; they’ll be restricted to brief, six-minute pregame shows.

Stanford Band bosses are keeping mum about their plans, saying only that the show is titled Recent Events in the Pro Sports World in Miami. Look out, LeBron.

This omits a crucial fact — Orange Bowl halftimes are always gala affairs that do not involve the marching bands — but this is written around in an amusing tone that’s consistent with the rest of the article.

The MSNBC affil didn’t pick up that fact, or on the light tone, and took those last grafs for their lead:

Fearing an en masse pants drop, or just wanting to protect their newest celeb athlete, LeBron James, from OJ Simpson-style mockery, the Orange Bowl administrators have decided to keep the bawdy Stanford Band from performing at halftime.

MSNBC picked a few highlights of the Band’s antics for the body of their article, then returned to the “banning” in their last grafs:

Denying the Stanford Band a stage also denies Virginia Tech one. The Orange Bowl will only allow the teams’ bands to perform in six-minute bursts before kickoff.

The Band’s show is entitled “Recent Events in the Pro Sports World in Miami.”

Whose talents could possibly be targeted, er, featured?

Using the MSNBC write as its only source – and with apparently no vetting of the facts via a local call to Stanford’s athletics department – the Chronicle turns the lightweight kicker from the Herald into a hard lead:

Orange Bowl administrators, determined to make tonight’s matchup between No. 5 Stanford and No. 12 Virginia Tech less entertaining, have decided to bar Stanford’s irreverent band from performing at halftime.

The move comes after the band announced its show was entitled: “Recent Events in the Pro Sports World in Miami.”

This is where I got involved. Hopping into the article’s comments section, I posted a series of followups, determined to prove the article false. The last comment I posted linked to four sources that could completely dispel the story:

I also e-mailed the writer of the article. I would have thought this would be enough to get the article – demonstrably and totally wrong – retracted.

Instead, it’s still on SFGate’s front page the next morning:

Obviously, this has hit a nerve with me. I can’t help it: I used to be an editor. When ESPN ScoreCenter sent me a push notification of the game’s final score, including the text “A. Luck(STAN) 4TD, 0INT”, my first thought was “Bullshit, he threw a pick in the second quarter.” Loyalties be damned, A is still A.

To see a major newspaper so sloppy and so obviously wrong is shameful. When I was writing and editing at CNN, if I had ever used a single source, which cited none of its own sources, with no vetting and no common sense fact-checking, I’d have been busted back to separating carbons in the printer room within a week.

Frankly, I’m going to get a good chuckle the next time one of the Chron’s 27 liberal columnists complains about obvious falsehoods on Fox News. It should also rankle that Wikipedia gets this more right than the Chron does. From a overnight edit to the Stanford Band article:

Despite Twitter rumors to the contrary, the band was not banned from performing during the 2011 Orange Bowl halftime. The Orange Bowl traditionally has major-label recording artists perform the halftime show, not school marching bands (The Goo Goo Dolls performed the 2011 show). They did, however perform during pregame, which was briefly shown on the game’s national broadcast. The theme of that show was “Recent Events in the Pro Sports World in Miami.”

Yesterday was a really rough day for me in terms of getting things straight. I also, perhaps foolishly, hopped into discussions of a Detroit Free Press article discussing the possibility that Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh could be the one to turn around the University of Michigan’s slumping football program. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for that here in Michigan, and I’ve been trying to throw cold water on it. Sure, I’m motivated by the implicit slight to Stanford. But moreover, it’s not a given that Harbaugh would want to give up a top-5 program that he’s built in order to start over with a reclamation project, one that he pointedly insulted a few years ago. It would, you’d think, at least take a dump truck of money. Moreover, a number of NFL teams are openly courting Harbaugh. I posted comments with links to articles indicating the 49ers, Broncos, and Panthers were openly pursuing him, along with a nice New York Times profile that covered Harbaugh’s options.

The result? A lot of people calling me various names, and one poster in particular who insisted repeatedly that it didn’t matter because Michigan had already hired Harbaugh a month ago. Now how does this even pass Occam’s Razor? Why would the NFL teams waste time and money, and a chance to land coaches who are actually available, if U-M had already secured Harbaugh’s services, or even thought they had? Why would anyone even be talking about it if it were a done deal? It can’t be, not yet anyways, and yet this guy stuck to his guns.

And yet, how is that any different from the Chron? There’s no penalty to being obviously wrong. When the facts aren’t on your side, just yell louder. The Big Lie works, in part because people believe what they want to believe. The Chron’s totally wrong article has been shared to Facebook nearly 1,700 times as of this writing.

We all know the internet is a breeding ground for ignorance, that you can find seemingly reputable sources for whatever stupid nonsense you care to believe (Obama’s not really American, 9/11 was an inside job, the CIA created AIDS to kill black people, etc.), but it’s still ghastly to see it in action.

My local paper recently declared it’s getting tough with trolls in its forums, and while I wish them the best, I wonder if it isn’t better in the long run to just ditch user comments altogether. I find I enjoy the consistent voice of an author – Daring Fireball is the obvious example of this in the Mac/iOS world – whereas I rarely find anything of value in feedback forums, just a mudslinging scrum among various partisans.

Comments should allow for readers to communicate back to publishers, and could provide a valuable means correcting bad information. And as professionals, publishers should want to be right: it’s the only thing that distinguishes them from any random Joe with a website.

But that’s where we started. I tried correcting them. It didn’t work. And the Chron is still happily collecting hits on an article that’s demonstrably and totally wrong.

Previous Post

Comment (1)

  1. Some of my journalist friends on Facebook pointed out the half-assed retractions that finally went up on these stories. MSNBC changed the headline from “Stanford Band Banned from Halftime Tonight” to “Stanford Band Performs Before, Not During”, and rewrote the grafs quoted above. They still cite no sources, and with the rewrites, they don’t even have a story anymore: Stanford Band doesn’t perform at halftime because they were never going to. The rewrite was also so hasty that it didn’t even get checked for grammar. Look at this clumsy bit in the middle:

    the Orange Bowl administrators have decided to keep the bawdy Stanford Band from performing at halftime are keeping with tradition

    Meanwhile, the Chronicle never corrected their story that was based on the MSNBC write, but instead disclaimed the affair in a completely different article with short Orange Bowl capsules:

    Band on the run? A report before the game that the Stanford band had been banned for a halftime performance was incorrect. Neither school’s band was scheduled to be part of the halftime show, which featured the Goo Goo Dolls. Each band was limited to a six-minute pregame show.

    However, the Chron’s own corrections policy requires correcting the archived version of the article, which they haven’t done. The author of the piece also never responded to an e-mail from me alerting him to the errors.

    In short: MSNBC and SFGate remain examples of terrible journalism in this incident.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.