Clint, Veganism, and Maligning the Net

Great interview in the International Herald Tribune/NYT with Clint Eastwood, but once again, it’s old media slagging off new media and ending up looking the worse for it.

The interviewer, presumably, asks Clint to confirm that he’s a vegan. Turns out he’s not.  Apparently the writer did his research on Wikipedia, because that’s what he cites as a source:

Despite what you might have read on Wikipedia, Eastwood is not a vegan, and he looked slightly aghast when told exactly what a vegan is. “I never look at the Internet for just that reason,” he said.

Trouble is, the source is not Wikipedia. As anyone who uses Wikipedia knows, any information on there must be sourced. A glance at the actual Wikipedia page would reveal that the source for this ‘fact’ about Clint is, in fact, a fellow old media source, The Los Angeles Times:

People ask him to autograph rifles, but Eastwood is no Charlton Heston. A vegan, he was distressed to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton boast recently about bagging a bird.

This piece was subsequently run in the San Jose Mercury News, the Providence Journal and PressDisplay.

In fact, you won’t be able to see this on the Wikipedia page anymore because it’s been removed. That’s because some new media moves faster than old media: on December 11, the day the NYT piece was first published, a Wikipedian spotted the reference and prompted a discussion, and the removal of the reference on the grounds that a direct denial from Eastwood trumps an LAT piece. (You can see the discussion here.)

In other words, from what we can judge, the journalist involved researched Clint on Wikipedia, and was ready enough to accept that as a source on which to base his questions. When the fact in question turned out to be wrong, he allowed Clint to make a familiar sideswipe at the Internet, and not further research the origin of the myth.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The LA Times doesn’t cite a source. But there are plenty of them—apparently. Clint is quoted on dozens of sites as saying

“I try to stick to a vegan diet—heavy on fruit, vegetables, tofu, and other soy products.”

Sites like GoVeg.com have been happy to include him in their Animal-Friendly Celebrities (although, to their credit, they seem to have removed him. Compare this page with this cached version.)

What’s perhaps most intriguing is the source of this quote. I’ll admit I can’t find it. But it’s been bouncing around the net for a couple of years; this forum cites it in September 2006. I found a  piece in Glasgow’s Daily Record on May 23, 2006 that also listed Clint as vegetarian, although the web site does not seem to contain a record of it. The oldest reference I can find is in the Miami New Times, on October 13 2005, which lists Clint among a number of (supposed) vegans.

In other words, a myth arose on the net, without any straightforward way of establishing its provenance or authenticity, which was then happily picked up by websites, businesses, and organisations whose purpose it served, then found its way into a mainstream news article, before finally being authoritatively quashed.

So yes, in a way Clint and the NYT reporter are right. The Internet isn’t reliable. But Wikipedia is. Or at least, it’s no less reliable than the sources it cites. Which in this case, happened to be old media itself.

Lesson? As a journalist I guess I might too have fallen into the trap of trusting the LA Times. But it’s a timely reminder that there’s no fact too small or apparently established that it can’t stand to be fact-checked.

Just don’t blame the net if you get it wrong. It’s cheap and it’s old wave.

The veteran power of Clint Eastwood – International Herald Tribune

17. December 2008 by jeremy
Categories: Internet life, Media | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 comments

Comments (6)

  1. Thanks for the interesting piece, Mr. Wagstaff. (As an aside, it *also* seems unlikely that Clint Eastwood, Hollywood veteran, had never heard of veganism and had to have it explained.)

    I can’t agree, however, that “the source is not Wikipedia.” The rumor may have *originated* with old media — but no matter where the rumor came from, Wikipedia has to take responsibility for publishing it and passing it on.

    As it is, it sounds like Wikipedia is alternately the fast-moving, responsible new media source (for having the discussion prompting the removal) and the blameless not-a-source-at-all (because the rumor started elsewhere). It can’t be both.

    The journalist repeated what Wikipedia said about Eastwood without checking further. But Wikipedia repeated what the LA Times said about Eastwood without checking further. Are they really that much different?

    Wikipedia is a terrific resource and mostly very accurate. But what makes it strong — the wonderful give-and-take you describe — is also a weakness, in that untrue material gets published on Wikipedia every day. We hope that journalists and students won’t pick up the phony facts before they get corrected, but Wikipedia still bears some of the blame when that happens. That responsibility is true for old and new media alike.

  2. Fritz, thanks for this, and interesting points.

    Wikipedia’s achilles heel is that it is based entirely on existing work. But I think, tho, that in this case the authors were quite right to assume that something in (reputable) old media is not a rumor: it’s as close to established fact as we’re likely to get.

    Sure, it’d be great if every fact in old media could be checked, but it can’t; at least, Wikipedia can’t be expected to do it, just as the authors of Encyclopedia Britannica would take an old media source as a valid secondary source.

    The point here is that Wikipedia cites its sources clearly, so anyone using Wikipedia for serious work–in this case a journalist preparing for an interview–should check the source of the Wikipedia ‘fact’, not least because it’s really, really easy to do. That’s not the same as tracking down the author of the LAT piece and finding out what their source was.

    So yes, I think they are different. I’m no shill for Wikipedia, and I quite agree with you that untrue material does end up on Wikipedia. But I’d stand by my point that the corrective process on WP is faster, and more transparent, and so ultimately more useful, than a lot of what we see in old media.

    Bottom line: It’s a lot easier to find out the provenance of something you find on Wikipedia than it is to find the provenance of something you find in an old media story. I believe this is a serious challenge for us in old media.

  3. Well, agreed: Wikipedia makes it easy to see where they got their information with their sourcing system. It’s good stuff.

    And I would also agree that any journalist who takes Wikipedia’s word for anything without digging deeper isn’t doing his or her job.

    (I should also note that I run a biographical almanac, Who2.com, that could be considered a modest competitor to Wikipedia.)

    But I think Wikipedia’s Achilles heel may be that it’s bound by its own design and by human nature to be misunderstood by most of its users. (The “Clint is vegan” journalist included.) No matter how much Wikipedia tells people *not* to take its word for things, people are going to assume what they read there is true. Because it *looks* like an encyclopedia and it calls itself an encyclopedia.

    To use the old saw, it’s a thing that looks like a duck and waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck… but which whispers, if you listen carefully, “I ain’t a duck. And it’s not my fault if you mistake me for a duck.”

    That’s an inherent contradiction that isn’t often acknowledged.

    I’m not anti-Wikipedia; I salute the idea and I use it quite often. It’s amazing.

    I don’t see a way around the dilemma, and maybe there is no real dilemma — maybe we just need time to train a new generation of users that there’s no such thing as an authoritative encyclopedia any more, or that Wikipedia is just a starting point.

    But I think there is also something to be said for the old system where accuracy and trust rest on the integrity of institutions which insist on careful work.

    I’m pretty sure the force of my argument here will result in Wikipedia being shut down sometime in 2009.

  4. Well put, Fritz, and I think you’re right. I think Wikipedia do a pretty good job of trying to flag entries which aren’t up to standard, but the bigger problem is people who are not attuned to the way Wikipedia works.

    I guess this is a wider problem than just Wikipedia. The NYT letters page people, for example, don’t seem to be able to grasp that email is an easily spoofable medium: http://is.gd/d2WJ

  5. Heh! I missed this story.

    Boy, that’s just about the drollest phony letter ever. “I find her bid in very poor taste.”

  6. Hi, I just think that it goes to show how so many people, journalists, web site developers, and other organisations are willing to accept an unproven source as the truth without doing their own checking. I am involved in a situation where a certain environmental group has criticised a product of mine, on investigation they tell me that they based their campaign on ‘evedence’ provided by a second organisation, which based it on evidence from a third organisation which based it on the evidence provided by the first organisation. A crazy situation which has cost me thoudands over the years and is based on nothing more than chinese whispers.