I sent New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan an email yesterday describing how Roger Cohen borrowed quotes in his recent column on oversharing. She got back to me today letting me know that this editor's note was added to the column:
In this column, the author suggested that he was moved to talk about over-sharing and anxiety online after he came across two comments on Twitter. In fact, both comments were taken from a Web site, overshare.com, that the writer consulted as part of his research. One of the comments, from Claire, was from a Twitter feed; the other, from Deanna, was from Facebook. They were both written in 2010. The writer should not have implied he stumbled across them while reading recent Twitter feeds.
This situation feels like a triumphant scream is required.
By the power of Grayskull, I have the power!
The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen engages in some ethically questionable journalism in his column Thursday about people sharing too much on Facebook and Twitter.
In his commentary, Cohen shares this lament:
Now I was determined to get through 2012 without doing a peevish column ... but everyone has a tipping point. Mine occurred when I came across this tweet from Claire:
"Have such a volcanically deep zit laying roots in my chin that it feels like someone hit me with a right cross."
Good to know, Claire.
I was just recovering from that when I found Deanna tweeting that she had "picked up pet food" and was heading to "the dreaded consult on colon stuff. The joys of turning 50." As for Kate she let the world know the status of her labor: "Contractions 3 minutes apart and dilated at 2 cm."
Social media does not mean that you have to be that social.
Cohen makes it sound as if these are people he interacts with on Twitter and Facebook, but it's far more likely that he found them on Oversharers.Com, a site that's the top Google search result for the term "oversharing." The quotes from Claire and Deanna are the first and third entries on the second page of the site's archive. The zit tweet was something Claire shared with her followers in February 2010. Deanna's "colon stuff" status update, which Cohen incorrectly calls a tweet, was posted to her Facebook friends no later than July 2010, if the date on Oversharers.Com post is correct.
He never credits Oversharers.Com as the source of these quotes. There was no "tipping point" that roused his inner curmudgeon about people sharing too much. He was fishing for examples to write a column around. More seriously from a journalistic standpoint, Cohen has no way of knowing if the Deanna quote is real. It's just a screen capture on a humor site with no link or full name of the author on Facebook. Someone could have made it up.
Regarding Cohen's premise that we're living in a too-much-information age, that's hard to argue.
But there's something obnoxiously elitist about a New York Times columnist ridiculing ordinary people for sharing observations about their lives on social networks to an audience of people who've specifically asked to receive them. Two years ago, Cohen used his column to share the text of a suicide note written by his mother:
That jolted me -- and sent me back to my mother's suicide note of July 25, 1978: "It's as though I've turned to stone. I can't relate, I can't communicate and I can no longer bear the pain and gloom I cause to those I love most. ... At present I am filled only with self-hate. I do love my family and dear friends but I can't go on and on like this."
My mother survived, just. But the bi-polar state that led her to try to take her life that day never entirely relaxed its grip.
What would Cohen have thought if he found something like that on a Facebook wall?
Update: The Times has acknowledged that Cohen made improper use of those quotes.
"We have a traditional understanding of journalism with the exception of TechCrunch." -- AOL chief executive officer Tim Armstrong
Around five years ago, Microsoft fueled a controversy by giving $4,000 Acer Ferrari 1000 laptop computers running Windows Vista Ultimate to some popular tech bloggers. A lot of bloggers -- particularly those who did not receive incredibly overpriced luxury branded laptops -- raised such a ruckus that Microsoft eventually asked for them back. Bloggers who wouldn't give them up were encouraged to hold a contest giveaway.
I was reminded of this controversy when I read TechCrunch writer M.G. Siegler's post this morning about how the news site's impartiality would not be affected by TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington actively investing in companies they report on:
The notion that Mike, or anyone else, investing in a company would dictate some sort of giant conflicted agenda is laughable. Literally. If Mike tried to get me to write some unreasonable post about a company he had invested in, I would laugh at him. But he would never do that. Ask Loic Le Meur. Ask Kevin Rose. Ask Shervin Pishevar. Ask Airbnb. Ask countless others. He didn't get to where he is by being an idiot. ...
The magic at TechCrunch happens because the writers have very little oversight. Instead, the emphasis is placed on hiring the right writers in the first place and putting them through a trial-by-fire to see who emerges. Those that have, my peers, are the best at what they do.
Siegler's defense is exactly the same as those Ferrari bloggers. Every journalist knows she is personally capable of rising above conflicts of interest to report without fear or favor. Getting to do it on a $4,000 laptop tricked out like a midlife crisis sports car is all the sweeter.
But let's say Arrington's new investment fund bankrolls Heello, the Twitter clone that 300,000 people were fascinated by for exactly 12 minutes last month.
Let's say Siegler thinks Heello belongs in the TechCrunch deadpool.
Will he report that story with the same enthusiasm he would give another startup that isn't fattened by Arrington's filthy lucre? There are far more lousy startups out there than Siegler has time to cover. It would be easy to make Heello a story he didn't quite get around to writing. The way a story gets reported isn't the only place journalistic bias rears its head. There's also the decision about whether to cover something at all.
Even if those fire-tested TechCrunch writers give impartial coverage to Arrington's ventures and all of their direct competitors, there's another way his investments bite them in the ass.
People will be too cynical to believe in that impartiality.
If you accepted that laptop from Microsoft in 2006, for the rest of time you face a choice every time you write about the company: You can disclose that gift again or risk having a snarky bastard in the comments make it sound like you intentionally covered it up.
Siegler now faces the same disclosure issue over and over again, and he didn't even get a laptop.
We here at Studio B did not run the video and did not reference the story in any way for many reasons, among them: we didn't know who shot it, we didn't know when it was shot, we didn't know the context of the statement, and because of the history of the videos on the site where it was posted, in short we do not and did not trust the source.
-- Fox News anchor Shepard Smith on Andrew Breitbart
By virtue of publishing the Drudge Retort, I've been following the career of Andrew Breitbart for more than a decade. His rise to prominence from Matt Drudge's uncredited collaborator to liberal-hating firebrand has been quite remarkable, given the fact that he's just a self-made web publisher who never held a job of any importance in media, politics or academia.
By his own admission, he was an aimless and frustrated college graduate in the mid-'90s when he discovered the Internet and decided to reinvent himself on it:
"I said to myself, 'O.K., you are going on a date tonight, and you are not going to bed until you have gone all the way.' And I remember hooking up to the World Wide Web that night, and it was a revelation. It was just like shooting yourself into outer space, and trying to latch onto anyone else who was out there. I remember finding weather sites and earthquake sites, and being able to monitor earthquakes in real time, and that was weirdly invigorating."
I did not expect that Breitbart would rise as far as he has, but now that he's obliterated his reputation with an ugly racial smear against a decent woman in government service, I think the seeds of his destruction have been in place for years.
A little over a year ago, I wrote about how enraged he is all the time:
All external indicators would suggest that Breitbart has a lot to be happy about, but I've followed his work for years and he operates in a constant state of anger at the perceived mistreatment of conservatives, particularly in Hollywood. Since he's around my age, he's lived during an era in which the right wing was ascendant in American politics. I'm not sure he could have survived the '60s and '70s, back when conservatism was the marginalized ideology of Barry Goldwater and washed-up B-movie actors.
Four months ago, I documented how Breitbart has been lying to the media for years:
... Breitbart [has] the good fortune to work in online agenda-driven journalism, where no one is ever held accountable for being wrong. Breitbart lied back then, lied about the ACORN sting and will probably lie in furtherance of the next scoop he peddles to the mainstream media.
He can't be trusted.
I wonder how long it will take the Times and the rest of the major media to figure that out.
There are political points I could score here, since Breitbart's hatred of liberals makes it satisfying to enjoy his fall from grace. But as a self-made web publisher myself, I find it disappointing that he won't simply apologize to Shirley Sherrod and admit a mistake.
He managed to turn his association with Drudge into a huge media platform and doesn't have to answer to anyone. There's no reason he has to be as nakedly self-preservational as the major media, the way the New York Times and USA Today acted when caught publishing Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley's fictional news stories, as if the entire reputation of the papers would collapse like a house of cards if they engaged in open self-criticism.
Breitbart is his own boss. He appears to be rolling in dough. He has Founding Father hair. What good is being a self-employed media mogul if you can't admit you screwed up and try to make it right?
Mel Cooley: "I didn't come here to be insulted!"
Buddy Sorrell: "Oh, where do you usually go to be insulted?"
Last month I called out Dave Winer for selling a paid placement in Radio UserLand that was never disclosed to his users. This sparked a tempest in a TechMeme in which Mike Arrington dropped the hammer on Winer, declaring that his credibility was permanently shot by the secret deal. I am now obligated, under enemy of my enemy is my friend rules, to extend to Arrington my warm hand of friendship. If we ever share a room at an overbooked Web 3.0 conference and the power goes out during a blizzard caused by climate change and the conservation of body heat becomes a necessity, I am not entirely hostile to spooning.
But I digress.
Winer has posted a public apology for not disclosing the paid placement:
About a month ago, Mike Arrington ran an article at TechCrunch about a deal we did at UserLand in 2002 with Adam Curry, to include his RSS feed in the set of default feeds for Radio 8.0.
Mike, who used to be my friend and my lawyer, and who believe it or not I still feel affection for, said about me: "Credibility = Shot. Permanently."
When I read that I felt like Mike was aiming an ethical bullet at my head. Luckily I was wearing my bullet-proof helmet that day. ;->
I wanted to let the accusations settle in before responding in detail. This really was between me and the users of my product, and possibly people who read my blog. After giving it some thought, I believe we should have disclosed that Adam paid us for inclusion in the OPML file, and we didn't. I apologize for that.
I explained further in a post on FriendFeed, earlier today.
The apology's the proper thing to do, so I'm passing it along. I find it curious that among all the responses on Scripting News and FriendFeed, there isn't a single person who thinks Winer has anything to be sorry for, while on TechCrunch the general consensus is that Winer's back-room shenanigans with a veejay bring shame upon his family for several generations.
If my blog ever became a place where I was universally admired, that would suck all the fun right out of it. Unlike Mel Cooley, I do come here to be insulted.
Newton was incredibly brazen, making up numerous professors, researchers, and public policy organizations. Some of the sources were placed at real institutions such as the University of Texas, the National Organization for Women, and Consumer Reports magazine, but he wasn't caught for several years.
Matt Drudge got away with something similar last year, quoting Drudge Report webmaster and friend Andrew Breitbart in a story about Sidney Blumenthal and claiming he was a professor of the fictitious Cashmere Institute of Media Studies.