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

The Puppy Love Scam

The scam emails offer a Yorkshire Terrier dog for adoption

A few weeks back I wrote about love scams (“You Give Love a Bad Name,” WSJ.com) — how scammers are trawling online dating sites looking for suckers. What interested me about the scam is that in some cases the scammers play a very patient game — luring the mark in over a period of months before any sting is attempted. 

Sophos, the antivirus people, say they have found a new twist on the same scam, where scammers are apparently luring folk by offering a puppy up for adoption:

The emails, which come from a husband and wife who claim to be on a Christian Mission in Africa say that their Yorkshire Terrier dog is not coping well in the hot weather.

Says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos:

“The criminals are offering the pet puppy in an attempt to gather information from kind-hearted people who jump in to help. If you respond the scammers will try and steal confidential information about you, or sting you for cash. If you fall for a trick like this you’ll be the one ending up in the doghouse.”

Actually this is not quite new and not completely accurate. The LA Times wrote back in May about how the scam works:

People who responded to the ads eventually were asked to send hundreds of dollars to cover expenses such as shipping, customs, taxes and inoculations on an ever-escalating scale.

Some reported paying fees totaling more $1,500.

A piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week said the scam had been going across America for a year and points out that a Google search for “Nigerian Puppy Scam” turns up more than 200,000 “hits.” (I must confess I found only 16,000.) Bulldogs and Yorkshire Terriers are favorites. The paper was apparently alerted to the scam when ads were found to be running in its own paper. A month earlier the Toronto Star reported that a local woman had parted with $500 for a 11-week old terrier, after responding to an ad on a free local classified site and complying with requests for three payments to ship the dog from Nigeria. (A reporter called up the scammer, who uttered the immortal scammer’s words:

“Are you trying to call me a scam? I’m a family man,” he said. “I am a man of God. I am a missionary.”

For more detail on scams and how to spot them, check out this page on the IPATA website.

Dogs work because we love them, and are suckers for the sob story. What’s interesting here — and why these scams are in some ways more dangerous — is that the scam does not play upon people’s greed at all, but instead upon their charity and sense of decency.

Two conclusions from this:

  • These scams are aimed at throwing a wider, and slightly different, net to the old scams. The victims are going to be people who are moral, not greedy.
  • Chances are the scammers are aiming at making less money from these scams, but perhaps make up for it in volume. Perhaps the days are over when scammer aimed to make five-figure sums.

Puppy offered for adoption by Nigerian email scammers

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The General, The Famous Psychiatrist and “Different Nigerians”

You don’t have to be dumb to fall for Nigerian email scams. According to a suit filed by a renowned psychiatrist’s son, Dr. Louis A. Gottschalk lost perhaps $3 million over 10 years to scammers from Nigeria. As the LA Times puts it:

The court documents, filed last month in Orange County Superior Court, allege Gottschalk even traveled to Africa to meet a shadowy figure known as “The General.” Gottschalk — who at 89 still works at the UCI campus medical plaza that bears his name — said in court papers that the losses were caused by “some bad investments.”

The tale is an awfully familiar one, made worse by the sums involved and the apparent fact that we are talking about a renowned psychiatrist. As the son’s attorney put it: “While it seems unlikely, even ludicrous, that a highly educated doctor like [Gottschalk] would fall prey to such an obvious con, that is exactly what happened,” according to court papers.

According to the son’s account, the scam dates back to 1995:

A year later, Louis Gottschalk traveled to Africa to meet “The General” and other Nigerians “to show them that he was sincere so he would get the money.” Another court document said he also traveled to Amsterdam to meet the Nigerians. Soon afterward, his son said Gottschalk admitted to him that he had lost $300,000 and that FBI agents concluded that he had been a victim of an Internet scam.

But, as in many of these cases, that didn’t stop him. Throwing good money after bad, caution to the wind but not the towel, Louis Gottschalk, according to his son

kept clandestinely wiring money to the Nigerians at least until last fall. Guy Gottschalk said that when he confronted his father in October, Louis Gottschalk said, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right on Thursday because I will be getting $20 million.”The son said his father also told him he’d get the money this time because these were “different Nigerians.”

They always are.

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VoIP and 911

An interesting case in Texas that highlights the weak spot in the whole VoIP thing:  Net Phone Firm Vonage Sued Over 911 Access, reports the LA Times:

As two gunmen forced their way into her Houston home Feb. 2, Sosamma John yelled to her daughter, Joyce, to call the police. Joyce ran upstairs, grabbed the phone and dialed 911. Instead of getting a police dispatcher, the frantic teen got a recording telling her that 911 wasn’t available from the family’s phone.
Joyce escaped the house to call from a neighbor’s — but not before the gunmen had shot her parents and fled.

On Tuesday, the state of Texas sued Vonage Holdings Corp., the nation’s largest Internet-based phone service provider, for allegedly failing to make clear that 911 calls weren’t included in a basic subscription.

The lawsuit highlights a challenge for the exploding business of Internet-based telephone service: Consumers attracted by the cheap rates may be giving up full access to emergency operators.

It also shows Internet phone companies and federal regulators, who are taking a hands-off approach to so-called voice over Internet protocol service, that state authorities are willing to step in with consumer-protection laws at their disposal.

It’s hard to imagine that VoIP services couldn’t provide some sort of emergency access, so perhaps this might be a blip. Or else it’s the thin end of a regulatory wedge that makes the whole cheap phone call thing a flash in the pan.

Is Google Making Journalists Sloppy?

Interesting piece from MediaBistro about how journalists use Google searches as a fast and loose way to prove a point.

The article doesn’t pull its punches. “What’s a simpler, or faster, way of quantifying a trend,” writes Lionel Beehner, “than typing a key word or phrase into Google? Type in almost any person, place, or thing, and Google will bounce back to you a neat numerical value that calculates that person, place, or thing’s importance to this world.” Beehner’s conclusion: “ Sad to say, plugging Google in a story has become almost a telltale sign of sloppy reporting, a hack’s version of a Rolodex.”

I’d certainly agree that in most of the examples cited, there could be a better way of gauging the popularity of something, whether it’s Britney Spears haters or building backyard ice rinks. Just to say a phrase or name is popular, widespread or a major trend because of the number of Google hits may not only be sloppy, but also faulty logic. But Google searches do have a value. You’ve just got to understand that what you’re searching is the Internet: a lop-sided, top-heavy, chaotic library of information gathered in the past 10 years or so.

When Beehner ridicules an LA Times journalist for describing a sports writer as ‘distinguished’ just because his name brings back 21,000 hits, I think he’s probably right. (Depending on whether the search results were throwing up his writings, discussion about his writings, complaints about his writings or references to his collections of Lego wine bottles, I would have used ‘prolific’, ‘oft-cited’, ‘eccentrically hobbied’ or whatever.) But when he has a go at another LAT journalist who uses Google to show there are “793 websites devoted to” Audrey Hepburn a decade after her death, I would raise an objection. Does ‘devoted to’ just mean references, as in movie listings (her career, after all, did span five decades) or are these fan sites? If the latter, I would say that’s a fair statistic.

Bottom line: Journalism has changed a lot with the Internet. The values underpinning it haven’t. Google is a great resource, and what it tells us, both in specifics (sites to go to) and in aggregate (results), is useful stuff. But next time you read a Google search as a piece of reporting to back up a statement, take a closer look.