Today’s earlier post about the Georgetown Law Dean who filed an expert report in federal court that was partially copied from Wikipedia was titled “How Dare Universities Charge Such High Tuition?” KABOOM!* #1…” with the full intent of offering “How Dare Universities Charge Such High Tuition?” KABOOM!* #2 shortly thereafter. My second, and messier, head explosion was triggered by a news story more outrageous than the first: it involved two universities, and a tenured professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design retiring after 25 years with a final lecture to students in which he said,
“If you are a white male, you don’t deserve to live. You are a cancer, you’re a disease, white males have never contributed anything positive to the world! They only murder, exploit and oppress non-whites! At least a white woman can have sex with a black man and make a brown baby but what can a white male do? He’s good for nothing. Slavery, genocides against aboriginal peoples and massive land confiscation, the inquisition, the holocaust, white males are all to blame! You maintain your white male privilege only by oppressing, discriminating against and enslaving others.”
As you might imagine, I had quite a few points to make about this, including why a single student in the lecture hall, and not just those being told to commit suicide, didn’t arise from their seats, walk out, and register a protest with the school—-a bit like I would have hoped Barack Obama would have done when he heard his pal, Rev. Wright, spout racist and hateful rhetoric from the pulpit.
I have learned, from bitter experience, that whenever a story causes my jaw to hit the floor I should check several non-blog sources, and there were many of them that have proven reliable in the past carrying the story. All were members of the so-called “conservative media,” true, but the tendency of the mainstream media to intentionally ignore events that make their brethren warriors of the left look bad—like, say, the ugly and still unfolding IRS scandal that the Obama administration still claims is imaginary— is an annoying constant in my world…and yours, if you will acknowledge it. Through dumb luck and dumb luck only, I checked one more source, and it saved me. The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s news and commentary site, had lapped its careless, inept competitors. The story of the professor’s farewell rant was a hoax, or satire, depending on your point of view.
Quoth The Blaze:
“A number of web outlets on Monday incorrectly reported that a Massachusetts professor used his final lecture to instruct his white male students to commit suicide. The outlets based their claims on a website called “Diversity Chronicle” which published an “interview” [with the professor] where he supposedly stood by the shocking claims….The only problem? While the professor is very real, the website is all satire.”
Whew! That was close. My escape is scant comfort for the maligned professor in question, however, who never uttered such sentiments, and is now being widely portrayed as a hateful, violent, racist fruitcake who represents the bottom-of-the-swamp worst of the radical and mind-rotting professors employed by ideologically unbalanced institutions of higher learning. He is getting hate mail, his reputation and character are being smeared, and as I write this, several news sites still have the original story up as truth.
The Diversity Chronicle is reckless, irresponsible and unethical, even by the low standards of web hoaxes, which are all irresponsible, in my view. There are no words accompanying its fake stories that designate the site’s content as satire, just a link labeled “Disclaimer” on the header. If you click on it, then you discover that “The original content on this blog is largely satirical,” and that it was created by Erik Thorson his “own amusement.” Well, Erik, you are a mean-spirited jerk, and I hope the professor sues you for defamation. Winning such suits are tough, but he might have a case.**
Your amusement, Erik, is not sufficient justification for throwing explosive fake quotes into the blogosphere that will have a real effect on a real person. The professor ( I want to minimize the connection of his real name with this) has some extreme views, and it you had the wit, reason and guts, you could take issue with those legitimately. Grotesquely exaggerating his positions to ridicule him while not making it clear to readers that what you wrote is fabricated and should not be attributed to him is either vicious or stupid, and in either case, you should suffer for it, and hard.
Satire sites must designate themselves as such prominently on every page, or they risk this kind of fiasco. What Thorson did on his site is indefensible—did you know that if you scroll down far enough on the “ABOUT” link in the Ethics Alarms header, it reveals that I am really an Australian cattle dog named Plover?
The abused professor has my support and sympathy, and the Blaze has my gratitude.
UPDATE: I am pondering whether I am too hard on Erik. The problem is that anyone who plays this game on the web is playing with fire, and Erik may be less a jerk than naive and inexperienced at his chosen craft. He should know that unless satire is clearly satire, it risks being believed. He knows, or should, that journalism is sloppy today, and web journalism is the sloppiest of all. He should understand confirmation bias, and that conservatives think progressive are crazy or stupid, and vice versa, and will believe the worst at the slightest provocation. And he should know the process he triggers: his “interview” with the professor contains lots of satire clues, more as the interview continues. However, in a sequence familiar from “The War of the Worlds,” a reader learns of this amazing story from a secondary source that records it as fact. The reader then checks the satirical blog, and just reads enough to be secure that the news article had a source. Most people won’t read far enough to pick up on the satire, and then pass along the false information. If one is going to write a satire website, one is ethically obligated to take fair and reasonable precautions against this, because otherwise rumors start and innocent people get hurt.
*Explanatory Note: A Kaboom! is a special Ethics Alarms designation for unethical conduct so ridiculous and egregious that it makes my head explode while reading about it one or more times.
** UPDATE: This very day, Ken White at Popehat discusses a failed defamation suit by two birthers against Esquire, in which they argued that Esquire’s satirical depiction of them as among other things, repeat sexual abusers of walruses wasn’t satire because some (really, really stupid) people believed it. I agree with the result in the case, I agree that the gullibility of the audience and the skill of the writer should not be determinative, and also agree that, as Ken writes, “Courts should protect satire broadly.” I am not certain that the standard articulated by the D.C. Circuit Court would apply to this hoax, however, or whether it should. That question is Ken’s specialty not mine.
Source: The Blaze