Tag Archives: The LA Times

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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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.

Will blogging keep the mainstream media in line?

Here’s a very interesting piece from Mark Glaser on the Adopt-A-Journalist movement, otherwise called Watchblogs. “The so-called “watchblogs” are generally anonymous bloggers who have taken it upon themselves to read each report from a particular presidential campaign reporter and then critique it for factual errors or bias,” Glaser writes. “If they gain traction, watchblogs represent another step in the evolution of reader feedback and media criticism, and they have the potential to improve the work of journalists.”

Speaking as a journalist, all I can say is: yikes. I don’t mean it’s not a good idea: Journalists can benefit from people reading and commenting on their stuff (most journalists assume no one reads their stuff, let alone looks for the byline to see who wrote it), and, particularly in political campaigns, misperceptions can become embedded if there is not some kind of oversight and balance. I just worry, along with Daniel Okrent, the new public editor at The New York Times, who Glaser quotes as saying: “There does seem to be a great deal of naivete [on some watchblogs] about how newspapers work. It can lead to an incomplete impression, that someone was making a conscious effort to turn the news one way or the  other, when in fact it’s that someone was on a deadline or something had to be cut.”

Here’s another interesting case. TechDirt, an excellent and industrious blog, has taken a close look at wire service Reuters’ coverage of a speech by Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, who resigned recently. (This may well be the most blogged event ever, according to those present.) Reuters’ lead is this: “Internet activism that thrust up the Howard Dean U.S. election campaign later hobbled the organization’s ability to respond to criticism in the weeks before the primaries, Dean’s former campaign manager said on Monday.”

TechDirt’s Mike has then compared it with the accounts given by two bloggers, Howard Rheingold and Ross Mayfield. His conclusion: “…it certainly looks like Reuters is the one doing the spinning here, taking a few quotes here and there out of context to make their point. With the bloggers’ notes, you can see the context of what’s being spoken about, and the Reuters report gives none of that. I’m not one who believes that bloggers are a “threat” to journalism, but the contrast here shows a perfect (if a bit scary) example of just how easy it is for the press to spin things to make their point.

Robert Scoble, a blogger from Microsoft, takes it a bit further. He agrees with Techdirt, saying the “spin doesn’t match the speech”. He goes on: “This was like listening to a two-hour speech and then ignoring almost all of it so you can write the story you want to write in the first place. Why go to the conference then?”

I can quite understand why people say these things, and I am optimistic that blogs may help provide a different point of view to traditional media. And I think Mike has made clear that he’s not out to flay the media and promote blogs as an alternative to traditional media. And Robert has a point: Journalists often do have a preconceived idea of the story (we’re taught to do that) which they sometimes stick to doggedly in the face of uncontrovertible evidence to the contrary. But, speaking as a journalist (and one who used to be with Reuters for nine years) I think it’s worthwhile to try to get a clear fix on what journalists are required to do in their line of work. A journalist’s job is not to summarize a speech, say, nor, necessarily, to take the line that is presented in the speech. If we did that, stories would be boring and journalism would be little more than ‘journalism of record’. A journalist’s job is to take what he/she thinks is the most newsworthy information from an event/speech/interview and present it in a news story. What that newsworthy bit is, is of course subjective.

A news story is a very formulaic presentation of the material that often, for those present at the event being described, bears disconcertingly little resemblance to what happened. It’s a format honed (or distorted, depending on your point of view) by centuries of newsgathering, and I quite sympathise with those who think it’s warped and bears little relationship to reality. But it’s not spin. Spin is what PR people, flaks and others do. Journalists take an angle. That’s what the journalist is doing when she/he writes their story up and focuses on one aspect of it. Not everyone is going to agree that the angle taken was the right one; that’s where news judgement kicks in. But spin is what someone with an interest in the outcome puts on information in the hope of influencing a journalist; an angle is what the journalist thinks is the ‘sexiest’ take on the story. (Of course if a journalist has been spun, so that the spin becomes the angle he/she adopts for the story, they end up being one and the same. But the distinction, I think, remains an important one.)

I’ve looked at the blogs and looked at the original report and one could certainly argue for more context, to his remarks, as Mike has suggested. But only if Reuters misquoted Trippi, or quoted him out of context so the meaning of his words were twisted, would the story be wrong. But it’s also instructive to see the quite different angles taken by other news organisations: AP, for example, focused on whether to give all the email addresses Dean’s campaign has gathered to the Democratic Party. The LA Times went with the idea that Trippi lost money on the whole thing, while Wired led with Trippi’s claim that it was a beta test of a political revolution. This is an example of a story that had no clear news angle, leaving it open to the reporters to focus on what they will.

Perhaps that in itself is a reflection of the gulf between the way traditional media focuses on things, and how bloggers and others might do it. I think the idea that bloggers focus on what journalists write more closely is a good step forward, but those who do it need to have a strong understanding about what a journalist’s motives and tools are. The reason why there is a ‘news angle’ which may be quite different to what the those at the center of the event may consider to be important is because, somehow, journalists have to filter out anything that’s not new and find what is, whether or not those present consider that to be the most important element. That’s what news is.

That said about angle/spin, a lot of factual errors creep into news stories, usually as background. A journalist, under time constraint and with limited resources to hand, may end up throwing in a few lines of background which tend to entrench errors or slants that should be noticed and corrected. Glaser points to an interesting role played by Campaign Desk, which was set up to “help correct the record before a mistake was taken up by the pack”. Already, Glaser writes, Campaign Desk helped correct the record on Wesley Clark’s opposition to the war in Iraq after Matt Drudge made it look like Clark supported it. This sort of thing is helpful.

In the end bloggers may provide an important missing element in the news process: alternatives sources of information. Those who want to hear everything that Trippi said now have some good resources to fall back on, thanks to the dozens of bloggers who blogged his speech. That enables those interested enough to trawl through the blogs for more information. For the rest of the world, however, they need a filter, someone to distill what he said and take out of it an interesting angle that somehow pushes the story forward. That’s what journalists are for. Until something better comes along.