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.”
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.