Ethics Dunce and Unethical Quote of the Day: Jon Dawson

“OH, you mean the one with the word “Column” at the beginning?”

—-Jon Dawson, alleged columnist for the Kinston Free Press, in snotty response to my query regarding his fake story that prompted my recent post, “Ethics Train Wreck in a Little Tea Pot.” I asked if his story was a hoax.

Yeah, you’re right…if I had seen the photo first, I might have been more suspicious….

I guess his answer means yes. I also guess somebody ought to tell all the other local news and city beat columnists around the country that the heading “column” by their names is supposed to be understood as “Don’t believe a thing I say.” Someone should also let national writers like E.J. Dionne, Robert Samuelson, Kathleen Parker, John Avlon, Andrew Sullivan…anyone with a column, really…that their brand of punditry and journalism is supposed to be assumed to be satirical and tongue-in-cheek, because “column” gives proper notice that the “facts” the column contains are likely to be hooey.

Back when I lived in Boston, there was a city beat columnist I enjoyed and read often. He was clever and funny, and his specialty was local Boston stories. His name is Mike Barnacle. He’s not in Boston any more: they ran him out of town for making up stories or embellishing them with phony facts. (He is now seen on MSNBC, where facts are beside the point.) I thought they were a bit rough on Mike in Boston, and I wonder why he didn’t inform his paper that the fact that he wrote a “column” gave him leave to test the gullibility of his readers every day.

The Kinston (N.C.) Free Press advertises itself as “North Carolina’s Local News source in Kinston. Breaking News, Latest Weather, Traffic Updates.” It doesn’t say it’s “The Onion,” or “Comedy Central.” The section of the website where this bogus story appeared is labelled “Local,” but since the story was 100% fabricated, it wasn’t “local,” any more than “Night of the Living Dead” was local Pittsburgh news. Sure, in hindsight, I should have seen that the story was a fake: I should have realized that the Washington Post’s Jessica Lynch story was fabricated too. You know what? I’m not apologizing for reading a story presented in a straight news forum as truthful. News media shouldn’t engage in hoaxes, period, unless the readers are clearly and unequivocally warned and notified.

A judge ordering a scofflaw to play a song on his stereo is far from the dumbest punishment I’ve read about a judges inflicting, or the most absurd conduct judges have engaged in recently. Sadly, the most jaw-dropping stories are true. One Texas judge preceded her 20 year sentence for a recently returned fugitive by presenting him with a cake with candles for every year he was on the lam. She had a banner across the courtroom, and had everyone sing to him. Then she sent him to prison. Another judge ordered Willie Nelson to serenade her to get a lighter sentence for drug possession.

Admittedly, I’m a trivia junkie, and recognizing the Sixties TV names Dawson used should have tipped me off. But what about more normal readers under the age of 40? They wouldn’t recognize those names, and wouldn’t have had a good, strong clue that Dawson was wasting their time before they read the quote from his girlfriend, about the fondness of rappers for “I’m a Little Tea Pot.” That didn’t work for me, because my son has made me listen to new ska recordings of “Yum Yum Bumblebee Tuna.” Rappers covering the “Tea Pot Song”? Makes as much sense to me as…

“Garbage, I turn like doorknobs Heart throb, never, black and ugly as ever…However, I stay coochied down to the socks…Rings and watch filled with rocks…”

Dawson isn’t especially clever, he abuses his readers, and he doesn’t have the guts or integrity to admit that he threw out a hoax on a news site without good reason, fair notice, or justifiable motives. I bet he was on deadline, and couldn’t come up with a real story. Next time, Jon, spend more time on your job, and stop wasting mine.

28 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce and Unethical Quote of the Day: Jon Dawson

  1. New ska recording? The ska version of The Bumble Bee Tuna song appeared on the 1994 album “God Bless Satan” by Mephiskapheles.
    Okay, enough nitpicking of Jack today.

  2. Jon Dawson North Carolina Press Association Awards:

    2009 – First place (music criticism)
    2010 – First place (music criticism)
    2010 – Third place (best video)
    2010 – Third place (lighter columns)
    2011 – First place (music criticism)
    2011 – Second place (lighter columns)
    2011 – Second place (multi-media project)

    “Making Gravy in Public” published in 2011 (#79 Amazon Kindle, Humor)

  3. Jack, aren’t you being a little hard on the Beaver? You were duped. Oops. Oh, well. He didn’t intentionally (to my knowledge) solicit his column to you for an ethics write up regarding the tea-pot incident.

    “News media shouldn’t engage in hoaxes, period, unless the readers are clearly and unequivocally warned and notified.”\

    What does the Onion do to clearly and unequivocally warn its readers. How about Dave Barry? Some brief research of Dawson’s columns would reveal the satirical nature of them. Or even his book.

    • Oh, now I have to do a character study and check the resume of each journalist and columnist before I am justified in taking what they print as a good faith effort to be truthful??? If we continue to shrug off this kind of abuse of print, you’re probably right. The former Asst. Attorney General of Indiana, after he lost his job for tweeting that the National Guard should use live ammo on the Wisconsin union protesters, made the same argument. He has a SATIRE blog! The problem is, for 99.99 percent of readers, he was just a government lawyer, just line the Beaver was just another columnist. When Jon is as well known for being a cut-up as Dave Barry or Steve Martin, then your argument makes sense. Not now. Its a lying column in a profession that is supposed to convey the truth. He has a blog—that was the place for this. Not the “Local News” section.

      • You can do what you want in the future. I would think as a matter of good practice that before you post something on your blog you obtain a counterpoint or attempt to collect other details. Taking a single source approach is a dangerous path to walk down.

        And it’s not Dawson’s fault. He comes from a tiny city and writes for a podunk daily. The locals know him, he’s received critical praise and has written a humor book. And no, you’re not supposed to know everything about every columnist. But in this case you goofed. So give the guy a break because the pejorative name-calling of Dawson is unwarranted and unbecoming.

        • Nonsense. He deserves it. There is no “podunk” internet. You know that. If you post on the web, you adhere to web ethics standards. I am not a journalist, and don’t pretend to be. I base ethics commentary on news stories, and the commentary is what the post is about. The headline of the story was an outright lie. Stop making excuses for this writer—there are none to be made. I should be able to believe that a news site isn’t making up stories, and don’t tell me it’s MY fault for not investigating. What is unbecoming is a journalist being reckless with the truth and then being cavalier about it. Being from Podunk excuses nothing.

          • Web ethics standards

            I’ll leave that one alone.

            I get your position about creating commentary from news stories. This one should probably have just been left alone because it was so out there.

            You say lie. I, and most of his readers, see entertaining satire that brings smiles to faces. His story about having his two year old arrested is hilarious. Even your source,, categorizes this as “silly.” He has a body of work that borders on nonsense. No excuses–just some understanding about who this guy is and what he writes about.

            • Fark calls stories “silly” when it thinks they are TRUE. It does not publish hoaxes knowingly.

              The most useful ethics story in legal ethics I found in 2010 involved a lawyer who decided she was possessed by her client’s dead wife. It was 100% true, and much stranger than the Tea Pot story.

  4. I’d forgotten about Mike Barnicle. (His surname is spelled that way, not like the sea creature, according to Wikipedia). Wow, I can’t believe he’s still around.

  5. I wont comment on whether he should have tagged his column as satire or not but I will say I am laughing at your reaction and post to it. sorry.

      • I dont think is a news hoax. I think its obvious that its satire, and badly written satire at that. And yes there should be some type of label saying its not true but even with most people knowing the Onion is satire I still see people quoting it who think is true.

        • But people thinking Mad Magazine or the Onion are printing truth when they do what they always do is not the same as someone believing a straight news site when it does what is usually does NOT do: print satire as truth. If the New York Times did this, it would be apologizing all over the place. And the minimial ethical standards for the Times are exactly the same as for a small NC newspaper site.

  6. I’m sorry, but the column was pretty obviously satirical just from reading it. Then again I’m quite a “The Onion” and “Something Awful” fan, so the writing style was pretty easy for me to pick up on.

  7. C’mon, Jack – are you really telling us that lines like…

    “50 Cent was weaving ‘Tea Pot’ into his rhymes when he was still 16 Cent.”


    “I enjoy a good sound system in the car — nothing like a little Bobby Womack on a Saturday night — sookie sookie, now,” [Judge] Ironside said

    …weren’t enough to tip you off the the fact that this column was a gag?

    • 1. Obviously not…and who the hell is “Bobby Womack”? And no, I don’t care enough to look him up.
      2. I know exactly nothing about what 50 cent did or didn’t do, and why would I? Give me 15 minutes, and I’ll produce 10 equally implausible quotes from legitimate news stories.
      3. You miss the point: it shouldn’t be a cultural literacy test. A straight news media outlet shouldn’t have fake stories, ever. Those e-mails from Nigerian Princes are obviously scams too, except for the people they suck in. Your reasoning essentially absolved the purveyors of hoaxes and scams as blameless if you, rather than their victims, wouldn’t have been fooled.

      • Okay. By that logic, there were people who were perfectly justified in believing that there were teensie-weensie people on an island called Lilliput that no one had ever heard of before, because they read it somewhere. And Jonathan Swift should have been strung up by his heels for these and other offenses.

        Jack, please do not think I’m being condescending here. I think you do a phenomenal job with this blog – you’re always interesting and provocative, and often enough brilliant, even when you’re advancing an argument with which I disagree.

        Way I see it, you got fooled, and you resent it. Been there, done that, and were it not for cultural literacy tests, satirists would be burned at the stake on alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays. And the rest of us would learn nothing.

        Why not just admit that this was a mistake, the way you so willingly did when you wrote about the guy (or was it a gal?) with alleged $#!+ tattoo on his/her back?

        PS – this is a perfect example of why I don’t do a blog. Bloggers react on the instant, which is part of what makes them fun, but good blog stories are reactive to other stories, and tend not to go back to the source.

        • No, I’ve had plenty of time to consider this, and I’ve been consistent: search on the site for “hoaxes.” I don’t resent being fooled…I get fooled all the time, and I rather enjoy fooling people myself who know that I’m prone to do it. I believe, and indeed know, that publishing false stories in a factual context is only ethical when something unequivocally states: this is satire, fiction, a gag. Other than that, the writer is the fool, and abusing the trust of readers. I was not the only one gulled by this, and the six or seven websites that picked it up in turn fooled others who trusted them. Who is this obscure humorist to make me fail my duty to my readers—to even throw challenges in my path, risking my losing the trust of MY readers because he wants to present his juvenile gag as “news” to make it a practical joke?

          Your Swiftian analogy is unfair—Swift was novelist and a well known satirist when he wrote that book. It was not printed as a first account news story, and if it had been, damn right people would have believed it—they believed in stranger things. I read a lot more legal stories and judicial ethics accounts than most people, and I can say truthfully that Jon’s fake story just is not that much more absurd than real ones.

          • Your Swiftian analogy is unfair—Swift was novelist and a well known satirist when he wrote that book. It was not printed as a first account news story, and if it had been, damn right people would have believed it—they believed in stranger things.

            Actually, it isn’t unfair at all, and here’s why.

            You argue that Swift was a “novelist and a well known satirist when he wrote the book.” Stipulated. However, if one goes to the website and looks at this columnist’s OTHER writings, you quickly see that he DOES work in satire regularly. This guy writes two things for his dinky little newspaper: serious reviews about music and humor pieces.

            Now, whether he’s particularly good at either is a matter of taste, but the simple fact is that to the people who REGULARLY read that paper/site, he IS known as a humorist or satirist, just as Swift was known as a satirist to HIS audience. It is merely accidental that this particular story either happened to fool someone who was either unfamiliar with Dawson’s work (and small regular audience), or WAS familiar with it and actually executed the hoax you decry. If the latter is true and you’re going to blame anyone, blame that guy.

            But meantime, consider this: 20 years ago, this column would have been limited to the print edition of a small local paper where the audience knew exactly what Dawson’s schtick was. No one but the extremely gullible would have been fooled. But the Internet effectively turns every small-town rag into an international resource. It’s up to us, as users of the Web, to do our own homework, and shame on us if we don’t (consider that there have been cases of people who actually believed items posted in The Onion).

            • I dealt with this, Arthur. elsewhere on the thread. If he’s known locally, swell–that doesn’t excuse such an article on the web. I’m no cultural illiterate, and a guy with a purely local following leaves no clue when he writes a column with nothing but his name on a page labeled “local news” that may be read by millions of people with no more knowledge of the guy than I have.

              • Then you should blame the editors responsible for the online edition, or the webmaster, or the web designer.

                If you must assign blame at all.

                • I blamed him, you’ll recall, for his asinine response to my query, writing that the mere fact that the piece was a “column” was sufficient to alert me that it wasn’t factual. That is nonsense, and disingenuous. He endorsed his editors’ decision, and he owns it.

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