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Why Is the Press So Freakin' Credulous and Dumb?

Via the news letter of publishing consulting Bob Sacks, I learned of a student hoax that won a top prize from the magazine Paris Match. A pair from the Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts convinced a group of "experts" that a faked spread on "students prostituting themselves or looking for food in dustbins" was the real thing. The point of the duo was to rub the nose of the media into its attitudes. The magazine eventually stopped payment on the €5,000 prize money check, but the big question is whether they'll learn anything. I doubt it, because snowing the press is way too easy and too common.

I remember last year uncovering a phony story that the academic magazine Materials Today had printed a story that Thomas Alva Edison murdered a rival, managing to ignore so many holes and giveaways that I know someone was laughing for months afterwards. If you look at the immediate evidence, the lack of veracity becomes as obvious as a square of artificial grass. Some of the tipoffs included a claim of a phone call between France and the U.S. in 1890, when the first transatlantic call happened 1918. The research tool place at a library that doesn't exist and checked the supposedly found diary of Edison with a non-existent professor at a non-existent university. When I questioned the magazine, here's the answer I received:

We cannot confirm it truth or false. But we thought it was a good piece of writing and we chose it as the winner. It was just a good piece of writing, which is why it won the competition.
The problem, I think, is that editors and reporters are often more interested in a "good story" than understanding the truth. After all, it's the grand story that can jumpstart a career and propel a publication into the eyes of millions. We see this at news outlets small and large, niche and general. I've seen people including Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith at the Boston Globe, Jayson Blair and Judith Miller at the New York Times, Stephen Glass at the New Republic, and lord knows how many others, particularly those who got away with it.

What's the one common factor in all of these cases? Bodies of work that, taken together, were just too good to believe. The quotes were perfect, the details salacious, the topics guaranteed to drive sales. Editors and publishers clearly didn't want to rock the boat, even when there were tons of signals that should have alerted everyone -- that eventually alerted everyone outside of the organization. It's the same basic problem at the root of the most recent Wall Street Follies: wanting a free lunch too badly. And until journalists start to realize that their real hope for career, and for the industry, lies in popping their own balloons as well as those of the people they cover, there will be plenty more examples in the future. The only thing that made what the students did to Paris Match different was that they admitted it once they had pulled off their prank:

"We pushed the clichés to the limit. We thought the whole thing was so hackneyed that it could never win ... We wanted to call into question the inner-workings of the attitude of the kind of media which portrays human distress with complacency and voyeurism," they said.
If only the press wanted to call those inner-workings and attitudes into question as well.

Artificial grass image via stock.xchng user nazreth, site standard license.

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