Consider this three-headed post an exploration of just how tangled and gray the Fake New Ethics Train Wreck really is.
Let’s start with…
1. The Irishman.
Last week the obituary of Chris Connors was viral on social media. The first part of it read,
Irishman Dies from Stubbornness, Whiskey
Chris Connors died, at age 67, after trying to box his bikini-clad hospice nurse just moments earlier. Ladies man, game slayer, and outlaw Connors told his last inappropriate joke on Friday, December 9, 2016, that which cannot be printed here. Anyone else fighting ALS and stage 4 pancreatic cancer would have gone quietly into the night, but Connors was stark naked drinking Veuve in a house full of friends and family as Al Green played from the speakers. The way he died is just like he lived: he wrote his own rules, he fought authority and he paved his own way. And if you said he couldn’t do it, he would make sure he could…
I instantly liked Chris, as did millions of others. This was published on the obituary site, Legacy.com. People like me sent the obituary around to friends, thought about it, and talked about it, because it made us feel good. Now there’s someone who did not go gentle into that good night!
Do I have any idea if this obituary is 100% accurate, or accurate at all? No. How often are obituaries fact-checked, if they aren’t written by a reporter? For normal people, like Chris Connors, almost never. Do you care? Do you care in this case? I don’t I am pretty sure that the obituary gives a fair sense of the kind of man Chris Connors was, even if it is hyperbolic, as I assume it was. Nevertheless, the obituary made me feel good, as it was supposed to. Christmas is starting to depress me as the years mount up: too many memories, too many lost loved ones, the sense of time passing too, quickly , of time running out. Chris’s story, which may have been only partially true, was a great, bracing, much-needed slap in the face. He had the right idea, or if he didn’t, whoever wrote his obituary did. Is there any harm anyone can attach to this inspiring farewell? If it was fake news by Facebook’s new standards, does it matter?
2. Santa’s Number One Elf
The story nailed the emotional richness of the holiday season in a time when Americans could use some heartwarming news, even if it provoked a few tears.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen, a professional Santa Claus in the Knoxville area who would never be allowed into Six Flags, told the Knoxville News Sentinel that a nurse called him to the hospital to visit a desperately a sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus before it was too late. He said he arrived at the hospital and took the child in his arms, warning people who might cry to leave the room. The child, said Schmitt-Matzen, was more upset about missing Christmas than he was about dying. “When you get to those pearly gates, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s No. 1 elf, and I know they’ll let you in,” Schmitt-Matzen recalled telling the boy. Then he died, happily, in Santa’s arms. Schmitt-Matzen was a victim of modern media’s thirst for stories. After the Knoxville News Sentinel ran the story, it too went viral, and soon the Tennessee Santa was telling this heart-wrenching story on TV, including CNN.
The story, however, defied verification. First Snopes decided to “fact-check” it, and could find no Knoxville hospitals that would confirm such an episode. Since it had been accused of publishing the kind of story that made Donald Trump President–who knows? Schmitt-Matzen may have been a Macedonian teenager in a Santa disguise, or maybe it was really Putin behind that white beard—the newspaper decided that its integrity was at stake. Well after it had published the tearful tale, it tried to back up what it had been told. It could not, so the original reporter and News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy have issued a statement that
“The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate. Therefore, because the story does not meet the newspaper’s standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.”
CNN also reported that it had called all the major hospitals in the Knoxville area that treat children and that none could confirm his account. Schmitt-Matzen told the Washington Post he stands by his account, and would not name the nurse or boy. The nurse violated policy by calling him, he suggested, and didn’t want to be named. The family wanted its privacy.
“If some people want to call me a liar … I can handle that better than I can handle a child in my arms dying,” he said. “It’s sticks and stones.”
Local NBC affiliate WBIR 10News claimed that it “independently verified several critical details of this story, but has agreed not to publish those for the sake of privacy. Schmitt-Matzen maintains his desire to protect all names involved.” The station claimed that Schmitt-Matzen’s wife of 38 years spoke with 10News and helped fill in details of her husband’s story and his response to what happened that day, which she says was mid-October. Schmitt-Matzen had said the incident happened “about six weeks ago,” but told 10News he had the time wrong and that his wife remembers those things better than he does.
“I know how he reacted that next morning, and this is something that weighed so heavy on him,” Sharon Schmitt-Matzen told the affiliate. “I just know that he just needed time by himself to accept what happened because he obviously wasn’t prepared for a child to die in his arms.” The news story continued:
Sharon said she hopes the nurse “would, at least, step forward and say, ‘Yes, I did call Eric and I can verify that he came.'”
The nurse, Schmitt-Matzen said, fears her job could be in jeopardy if she came forward, for calling a non-family member into an ICU without prior hospital approval and then having that person publicly share his story.
“If she were to be fired for what she did out of the love of that child, then the hospital administrators and HR, they need to take a second look at their policies,” Sharon Schmitt-Matzen said. “I really don’t think that she should be fired.”
“Believe me, if there’s anybody in the world who would like to see her come out, it’s me,” Eric Schmitt-Matzen said.
He, however, will not be the one to reveal that information – or anything about the family.
Was the story of Santa’s Number One Elf “fake news”? Or was it like some of the stories you hear from parents and others you trust, and believe because there’s no immediate way to verify them, and the story has value with or without verification? In this case, how would Schmitt-Matzen provide verification, if the nurse and the family don’t want to be identified? Should he divulge their names as deep background and trust the press to keep their…I’m sorry, I started laughing as I started to type that.
If it can’t be verified, is the news media obligated not to tell Santa’s story, even if there’s no reason to doubt Santa Claus?
And speaking of trusting the news media, here is the…
3. Fake History
Politico Magazine continued the news media’s daily flogging of the “fake news” trope, as part of its effort to both excuse its own incompetent and biased reporting and to de-legitimize the election of Donald Trump. It published a long feature about the history of fake news and how it has influenced the course of history. One example it offered was how the publisher William Randolph Hearst’s had vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain. As historical myth-buster W. Joseph Campbell persuasively illustrates on his blog, this frequently cited event never happened.
That’s right: Politico used fake history to show how fake news has influenced real history, just like 2065 Politico will be claiming that Putin stole the Presidency from Hillary Clinton.
Here’s how Politico recounted the anecdote:
“In the 1890s, plutocrats like Randolph Hearst and his Morning Journal used exaggeration to help spark the Spanish-American War. When Hearst’s correspondent in Havana wired that there would be no war, Hearst — the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane — famously responded: ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Hearst published fake drawings of Cuban officials strip-searching American women — and he got his war.”
Lots of myth to unpack in that passage.
Let’s start with the unsourced reference to Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow…the anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message. And it lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.
Not only that, but it’s extremely unlikely that Hearst’s purported telegram would have reached Remington without being intercepted by Spanish authorities. They controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic and their oversight…was “too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon”… incendiary message such as a vow to “furnish the war” surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.
There is more. What Campbell makes clear is that Politico didn’t fact-check what it was citing as historical precedent, thus spreading misinformation and perpetuating fake news from the Spanish-American War. We not only can’t trust the stories we read and hear about to be true, the journalists who we are supposed to trust to separate the lies from the truth are so often biased and incompetent that their pretensions to the contrary are fake as well.
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