The Drudge Retort fell for a hoax earlier this month, passing along a newspaper's report that a college student was investigated by the Department of Homeland Security for requesting Mao Zedong's Little Red Book on interlibrary loan. The student admitted on Friday it was a little red lie.

I hate falling for stuff like this, because I like to think I was occasionally listening in class when I earned a journalism degree from the University of North Texas. In hindsight there were strong reasons to be skeptical: The claim was reported by a small newspaper, the New Bedford Standard-Times, based entirely on the account of a student who asked the paper not to reveal his name.

Other suckers include Slashdot, Molly Ivins, Sen. Ted Kennedy, NewsMax and several hundred blogs.

The newspaper that originally reported the story hasn't come close to apologizing. Reporter Aaron Nicodemus blames the world for wanting to believe his story was true:

The story's release came at a perfect storm in the news cycle. Only a day before, The New York Times had reported that President Bush had allowed the National Security Agency to conduct wiretaps on international phone calls from the United States without a warrant. The Patriot Act, created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to allow the government greater authority to monitor for possible terrorism activities, was up for re-authorization in Congress.

There was an increased sense among some Americans that the U.S. government was overstepping its bounds and trampling on civil liberties in order to thwart future attacks of terrorism. The story of a college student being questioned for requesting a 40-year old book on Communism fed right into that atmosphere.

The newpaper's opinion page apportions 100 percent of the blame to the student:

Student should be ashamed: Thumbs down for the UMass student who lied to professors and The Standard-Times about being visited by federal agents after he ordered a copy of Mao Tse Tung's Little Red Book through the inter-library loan system. This bogus story went around the nation and gave the public a false impression of our government at a time whenour government is under intense pressure to defend the homeland from terrorism and does not need the public to turn against it.

The paper continues to honor a confidentiality agreement with the student who lied to them, a journalistic practice I've never understood.

-- Rogers Cadenhead

Comments

Why would it surprise anyone that liberals would pick this up and run with it with out corroborating the story? Unfortunately they do this all the time.


 

I've learned over the past couple of years that news is also subject to "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is". If it's an anecdote that just perfectly proves your point and it almost invites you to stuff it down the throats of your opposition, it stands a very good chance of being untrue.

I say this without regards to partisanship; here's an example from the "other side", and I know I've seen others from him.

This principle has saved me from embarrassment several times, but I have missed a couple of times.

Something to add to your list of journalistic signs to look for in these fluid times, when a story can go from rumor to solid fact to discredited story in a matter of days or even hours.


 

Why would it surprise anyone that liberals would pick this up and run with it with out corroborating the story? Unfortunately they do this all the time.

As opposed to conservatives who judiciously fact-check everything they report like the story on Kerry mistress Alex Polier and President Clinton's illegitimate fun baby Danny Williams?

Everybody has stories they're inclined to believe because they dovetail nicely with their own preconceived notions. I've called out myself and other liberals here, but if you think conservatives aren't susceptible to the same kind of error, you aren't paying attention.


 

I don't believe anything I read anymore. What's worse, as the old sage is so fond of saying, is the truth is often stranger than fiction.


 

What a shame. The paper did this country a great disservice by not checking the story. By promoting a false story of invasion of privacy, they have helped to cover and sanctify the government's attempts to invade privacy by proving that at least some of the accounts of such practices are untrue or exaggerated. Lying to make your point always backfires.


 

I'm not so sure that Kerry intern story was false. At least I don't want to believe that someone could really sleep with Teresa Heinz Kerry.

This Homeland Security story stunk from day one. I didn't believe it for a second. How it could get past a supposedly skeptical and non-partisan reporter is one for the ages. But if think newspapers aren't happy to swallow every anti-conservative load they can find - you aren't paying attention, as my esteemed Colleague to the north would say.


 

Why is it that the Stanford Times is a small paper a cause for concern? Small papers can break stories, too .


 

As it showed up at a time when the Constitution is under the greatest threat of its existence it was all to easy to believe this particular story.

With the amount of disinformation in the ether already, from governmental sources as well as the too-corporate-cozy media, we certainly don't need student attention whores adding to the cacophony.

As to the papers decision to defend the liar?

Spud can only shake his wee starchy head in utter astonishment.

Be Well.


 

Why is it that the Stanford Times is a small paper a cause for concern? Small papers can break stories, too .

True -- the Willamette Week just won a Pulitzer for exposing that former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt was a child molester -- but a smaller paper has less eyeballs to scrutinize a story before it sees print.


 

Why would it surprise anyone that liberals would pick this up and run with it with out corroborating the story? Unfortunately they do this all the time.

Troy


And I'll bet Troy had the same tone of righteous indignation when the White House was caught in lies, such as, say, "We Do Not Torture", "We Have No Secret CIA Prisons", or the best one, "We Are Not Spying on US Citizens".

There are always going to be stories which aren't true gaining attention. But given how many lies and propaganda pieces have been pro-Bush and anti-freedom, I suppose an occasional story with the aim of being pro-freedom (and thus anti-Bush) will slip through.

Not that the anti-Bush camp needs lies to support it's case. This corrupt administration provides them on a daily basis. Unfortunately, given the propensity for the propagandists to evade any factual discussion, this fake story will obviously ascend to a Republemming Talking Point.


 

I have abiding respect for blogs that correct the record and utter contempt for those that stay silent when a story blows up in their face.

Case in point -- David Horowitz's FrontPageMag.com and its sibling, "studentsforacademicfreedom.or g". When an Indiana law professor in February claimed he was denied tenure because he supported the Iraq war, they ran epic screeds of righteous indignation. A half-dozen updates, laden with undertones of conspiracy and intrigue.

Three weeks ago, Professor William Bradford admitted he had lied about much of his background, including his military service, war experience and honors. He resigned from the law school.

Again, that was three weeks ago.

Not a peep from the Horowitz sites. In fact, the "studentsfor academicfreedom" editor says Bradford's lying "hardly undermines" his other claims.


 

I have to laugh because messages from the Holy Spirit on The Holy Inheritance blog and the Christian Prophet blog are convincing me that we all know the truth or falsity of everything if we just listen inside to His Voice. It has always worked for me. Nobody is served by liberals saying, "conservatives do it too." What we need is not justifications that everyone is doing it, but a lot of voices demanding honesty in journalism.


 

I've chatted with Aaron Nicodemus in the past. Seems like a pro to me. Surprised he's caught up in this stupid story. For shame!


 

When I was young, I thought Mao Tse Tung (that's the way they spelled it then) was really cool. Later I found out that he had been responsible for the deaths of nearly 20 million people, not to mention the horrors of the 'Cultural Revolution".

So I had to reconsider how I felt about Chairman Mao.


 

Rogers,

You cannot have this ANY MORE WRONG.

This newspaper did not report its story "based entirely on the account of a student who asked the paper not to reveal his name."

You need to go back and REREAD the original story.

Here it is:
www.southcoasttoday.com

In it, you will see that the newspaper in question DID NOT EVEN TALK to the student in question before running their story.

I quote from the original story: " ... [The student] has not spoken to the Standard Times."

(On December 10, I wrote on my blog that this story was bogus. Any marginally skeptical reader could see the clues.)

THAT is what got this newspaper into trouble, and why they are protecting the name of this student, even though he is reported to be a 22-year-old adult.

The original story was based on the THIRD-HAND comments of two "professors" of history at UMASS-Dartmouth ... NOT on interviews conducted with the actual student. One of the professors is an Ass. Professor of Islamic studies (BIG, FAT CLUE.)

I am not excusing what the student did, but what the student did was to pass a bogus story to HIS PROFESSORS.

It was THEY, not the student, who were the sources for the newspaper article in question.

The newspaper's reporting was inexcuseably SHODDY (not unusual in small, poorly staffed local papers filled with Woodward/Bernstein-wanna be's.)

To place all of the blame on the "student" is to miss the point.


 

I misunderstood this paragraph:


Although The Standard-Times knows the name of the student, he is not coming forward because he fears repercussions should his name become public. He has not spoken to The Standard-Times.

I thought it meant he declined to be interviewed, because it would be flagrantly irresponsible to state that he "fears repercussions should his name become public" unless you heard that directly from him. The paper's op-ed page stated that the student lied to them.

The first followup supports your interpretation:


... the student and his parents have made it clear to The Standard-Times that they do not want to discuss what happened. The Standard-Times has made numerous attempts to contact the student and his parents by phone and visited their home in New Bedford. He and his family members have rebuffed these attempts for comment.

Ugh. If you're right, the paper ran a secondhand claim without corroboration from anyone -- the student, the library, or federal agents.


 

Rogers,

That's EXACTLY what they appear to have done.

To make matters WORSE, they are now trying to put their shoddy reporting off on the "student" by claiming in their OP-ED that he "lied to them."

He didn't lie to them. They deceived THEMSELVES by being willing to accept uncritically something they heard third-hand from a college professor with an axe to grind.

No additonal reporting was done to verify the claims of the two college professors quoted in the original story.

The editor should bear the brunt of all criticism here. Any editor who values the reputation of his newspapers' reporting would never have allowed this poorly sourced piece from ever seeing ink.

Unless, that is, he thought he could get away with it. And you know what's worse. He CAN get away with it. His publisher won't fire him, because his publisher probably agrees with Ted Kennedy, who used this story as the basis of an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe to criticize the Bush Administration as having gone "too far" in "spying" on "ordinary Americans."

This is why young people, critical thinkers, are ABANDONING newspapers.

Newspapers have lost all sense of impartiality and you cannot trust what you read in them. And when they are CAUGHT, nobody ever gets fired.


 

This is why I read Rogers site. Coming clean about passing on a hoax is the way to go. As someone else pointed out, the silence from that idiot Horowitz on any number of false claims published at FrontPage is deafening.

And this is entirely the newspaper's fault. You really have to parse their stories carefully to realize that they apparently reported this entirely third hand initially. Obviously they didn't bother to fact check any of the particulars either.

I don't think, however, they should divulge the student's name if this is the case. The kid tells a lie to his professor -- Homeland Security ate my homework. The prof then passes that on to a reporter and it blows up and the student is suddenly backed into a corner by his lie. Its not the student who needs to be called on the carpet in this case, but the reporter.


 

As publisher of a small newspaper with an impeccable record for airtight investigative reporting, I resent the comments about small v. large papers. I've judged journalism contests for 30 years. Some of the best work in the country is being done by smaller papers, and some of the shoddiest comes from the "elder statespapers." (The reverse also can be true. And yes, I've had my share of W&B wannabes at the Oologah Lake Leader. The instinct is what makes a good journalist; the key is training, editing and teaching.

This was a shoddy piece of work--which is why when it came my way on a pestigious college listserv I red flagged it until it could be checked. But it wasn't shoddy because it was a small paper, it was shoddy because it was poor quality work. Hopefully those responsible will learn from this experience.

As for who is to blame: the student, the professors and the paper. It does not look like liberal bias, it simply looks like someone who did not want to verify a story for fear it would fall apart.

As for responsibility: My favorite tale (may or may not be true) is of a weekly which was so filled with errors in one issue that the next week the publisher included instructions on how to fold and burn it so at least its errors could not further pollute the future. Now THAT'S an honest correction, and one I'd love to see used more often.

BTW, the tipoff to me was that the story did not examine the inter-library loan process. If the story had been well reported, that process would have been thoroughly explained--probably by a librarian who could have easily said, "Wait a minute, we never processed any such request." I was also taken by the newspaper's elementary explanation of The Little Red Book, which again sounded like someone who skipped the hard reporting and went straight to the writing process.


 

RIGHTNUMBERONE nails it. And ditto other comments that small versus big is NOT the issue here ... nor is it liberal versus conservative. It's whether the original reporter did good job or a shoddy job ... and was there any journalistic principals applied for all the subsequent media reports.

IMHO, the anger at the student who perpetrated the hoax is mis-directed ... he only duped the professor(s) who then (maybe unwillingly) duped the paper. It's the paper (and subsequent media) coverage that duped everyone else. I'd suggest this ia another great example of the biggest hoax of all - that the media engages in meticulous fact-checking.

I think Steve had an excellent point about how media (including online stuff) should correct their mistakes promptly and publically. I would suggest that Dan Rather pissed away his career not by making a mistake with the Bush FAX ... but by stonewalling for almost two week against what became overwhelming evidence it had been typed up in Microsoft Word ... using the default settings. Note that I'm judging him journalistically, not politically.

ROGERS: You seem to back away a little bit from your initial story in a later blog post - I don't know enough about this particular story to determine exactly what happened, but it smelled initially, and it's really stinky now. I'll be curious to see if your opinion changes after some of the excellent commentary above and if you post a new blog entry with updated thoughts. You mention your journalistic background and I see you got mentioned on Romensko.

It does seem to me adding a "Shoddy original reporting and zero fact-checking by various media result in " to your blog headline probably won't win you points from your 4th Estate friends, but would more accurately state what actually happened.


 

The Canadian Potato says, "As it showed up at a time when the Constitution is under the greatest threat of its existence it was all to easy to believe this particular story."

Really, why should you care about the US Constitution? Worry about your own, much less liberal constitution (have you ever read it?)

As for the greatest threat to the US one? That happened in 1913 when the 16th Amendment was supposedly ratified, and then later when Roosevelt shoved the "Voluntary Tax System" and "Witholding" down the throats of the American public. . .


 

John,

Your comments are spot on. Size does not make a good newspaper, and there are many fine smaller ones. There are too many smaller ones which are run as 30% profit centers for their publisher/owners.

(I worked exclusively at small newspapers, and so have some experience to fall back on in making that assessment.)

The person who should be singled out for ridicule in this entire affair is not the student, not the professor, and not even the reporter.

Reporters do lousy jobs every single day (just like people in every other field). Some reporters (gasp) are LAZY. That's why they have editors.

The editor failed his readers and his newspaper here. Why he did so is hard to know (especially since he isn't telling us), but accepting this story because it "meshed" with a particular world view on the Patriot Act is certainly a reasonable conclusion in the absence of any another explanation.

I predict the editor will get away with his shoddy editing, and there won't be any repercussions for his career (it may even enhance his standing in his community - which I'm quite sure is full of like-minded folk.)

But what it does for the future and credibility of newspapers is to just pound one more nail in the ever-descending coffin.


 

RightNumberOne: I don't think the credibility of your fact-checking is helped by the speculation you're engaging in here and on your weblog.

It's not fair for you to declare that the newspaper "has been used as as a 'willing idiot' in the war on terror by two college 'professors' who both should lose their jobs for using their positions on the University in this way," as you wrote recently on your site.

Another UMass-Dartmouth professor, Clyde Barrow, engages in the same kind of hyperbole in today's Boston Globe, when he declares the professors quoted in these stores are "dogmatic and zealous group of politically correct but chic anti-Americans."

If you want to talk the facts of this matter, great. But going after the career of these professors, based on unfounded suspicions of their partisanship, seems wildly unfair.


 

Rogers,

They aren't "professors." They are Assistant Professors. I checked.

I am of the OPINION that they should be let go by the University, but in no way am I "going after their jobs."

I have no "unfounded suspicions of their partisanship." I question their partisianship. That is an opinion which I am free to have. I am questioning their motives by noting that:

1) The story was false.
2) The newspaper and the professors, NOT THE STUDENT, spread the story
3) Ted Kennedy used the story as the basis of an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe meant to undermine the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

So, I am questioning the motives of the assistant professors AND the newapaper, while your post condemned the student, quite unfairly.

And its OK for me to do that, because I think there are hidden motivations here upon which I can base an opinion.

I can cite "facts" and then also have an "opinion" about those facts. Doing so does not bring into disrepute the obvious.

But thanks for your comment.


 

Rogers says, "It's not fair for you to declare that the newspaper "has been used as as a 'willing idiot' in the war on terror by two college 'professors' who both should lose their jobs for using their positions on the University in this way," as you wrote recently on your site."

Feeling some "heat," Rogers? Face it, pal, you're a "Duck. . ."


 

I believe the editor of the New Bedford Standard-Times, Robert V. Unger, should name the student. He refuses, and says his publisher, William T. Kennedy, agrees with him.

Clearly, the first massive mistake was made by reporter Aaron Nicodemus and his editor, Mr. Unger, when they went ahead with the story after Mr. Nicodemus failed in his efforts to talk to the student directly. Only two professors said that the student made this claim. There were aspects to the story that could have been checked out even though Mr. Nicodemus tried but failed to contact the student. The entire inter-library loan process could have been investigated, for example. This alone would have raised sufficient suspicions that might have put the article on hold, or perhaps killed it entirely.

However, as described by Mr. Unger in a lengthy piece on December 30, the situation became more complex after the original article appeared on December 17. Huge additional mistakes were made. The student, for example, was cornered and over at least a few days, embellished his story. Mr. Unger reports: "Mr. Nicodemus began working on a follow-up to the story, which several other UMass Dartmouth professors now said they also had heard from the student and found him credible. He finally managed to get the student to talk to him -- on the record -- with the help of professors Williams and Pontbriand, who were eager to ask some questions themselves. But the more the student talked, the more concerned Mr. Nicodemus became about whether he was hearing the truth."

Shortly after the original story appeared, Prof. Brian Williams went out of his way to defend the credibility of the student without immediately doing any checking of his own. That was another mistake. Once the story appeared, the student may have panicked, but he clearly lied to everyone some more. Then he finally confessed when his lies became mired in too many contradictions.

Everyone recognizes that the Standard-Times screwed up on the initial story. They should apologize without any excuses. And they should also name the student. Hoaxers on important issues must not remain anonymous.

The student is an adult, and we need to send the message that when adults tell lies to the media on important issues of the day, then no newspaper should protect any confidentiality agreements that were made to them or about them. Furthermore, the university is reported to have requested to the newspaper that the name be withheld. The university has no business doing this.

I want the name of the hoaxer for the public record. This sort of behavior must be discouraged, because there is too much at stake. Anonymity should not be an option for hoaxers when the issues are so important.


 

Rogers Cadenhead's teach urself java series are execellent,very much self explanatory,lucid and complete. I strongly request him to write articles on SCJP and SCJD. I also request him to write on Object Oriented Analysis And Design.
with thanx

NIHAR RANJAN DASH.
MASTER IN COMPUTER APPLICATIONS (MCA)
INDIA
dnihar05@yahoo.com


 

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