The Difference Between Journalism And Information Pollution (Updated)

(Updates at the end.) Gov. Nathan Deal found himself fending off bloggers today, who claimed that a federal indictment is coming in a couple of weeks over alleged shady manipulations related to his auto salvage business and the ethics issues of the last year.

I question the credibility of the story.

The report began with a relatively new site, LiberalAmerica.org, and a story by Andrew Bradford, “Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to Be Indicted On Federal Charges In January.”

Now, I’m a progressive Democrat. I don’t hide it. Do I think Deal may have broken the law when his office interfered with the work of ethics investigators? Sure. Do I think Deal manipulated officials to his own financial benefit? Probably.

Do I think a third-string online news outlet like LiberalAmerica.org managed to gin up legitimate law enforcement sources willing to confirm a pending indictment … where none of the other news organizations in this town with serious political and crime reporters has managed the feat? Hell no. Here’s why.  

To make a claim this extraordinary, using anonymous sources, requires the reader to rely on the reporter’s own reputation of credibility. Typically, that reputation is built over years of accurate reporting. But Andrew Bradford appears to have started writing for this publication .. oh, about three weeks ago. I can find nothing online under his byline before that. The site publishes no biographies for its reporters. I can find no LinkedIn profile matching up an Andrew Bradford near Atlanta with a history of reporting.

In fact … the first results for a search of “Andrew Bradford” lead to a wikipedia entry for a colonial-era printer jailed for writing essays critical of the government. I’m led to wonder if Andrew Bradford is actually a pseudonym.

Liberal America itself was founded by Tiffany Willis, a social media strategist who appears to have little background in hard journalism — certainly not enough to carry a story like this on the strength of unnamed sources.

As journalism, it’s at a par with the Breitbart-ization of news. But as a social media play … well, it’s getting the job done.

Normally, a story like this on a site like LiberalAmerica.org might be ignored. But DailyKos picked up on it, with what Quantcast implies is 50 times the reach. Shortly afterward, actual news reporters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution bothered to make an actual phone call to an actual human being and interviewed sources at the governor’s office to get their take on the report. And, of course, they refuted it.

Might it still be true? Sure … if you’re willing to believe that one of Nathan Deal’s lawyers straight up no-wiggle-room lied to an AJC reporter on the record. But it is completely impossible to distinguish this story from something literally manufactured in someone’s bedroom to draw page views. There’s nothing in the piece — not the year-old “news” organization, not the anonymous sources, not the all-but-anonymous author — that carries credible truth value.

Notably, Mr. Bradford reported that Deal could not be reached for comment. He doesn’t indicate what effort he made to speak with Deal’s office. But somehow the AJC managed to get Deal’s lawyer on the phone in an afternoon.

I have emails and Facebook messages out to all concerned at Liberal America, asking for comment. When they get back to me, I’ll get back to you.

There’s a difference between news that’s reported honestly — even if the point of view of the author lay out in the open — and clickbait designed to capture eyeballs, where the truth of the story comes second to using the confirmation biases of the reader to make money. The latter is information pollution, a side effect of a world in which page views can and must be monetized.

People are willing to believe this because they think Deal’s shady, not because there’s enough objective evidence in the story to draw conclusions. I’m not interested in defending Deal. I’m interested in defending good journalism. A story like this craps all over honest news reporting.

________

(UPDATE, 5 p.m. 12/30/14)

DailyKos has withdrawn the story under criticism. LiberalAmerica.org has merely “lost” it.

And it seems I was right about the pseudonym.

Tiffany Willis, LiberalAmerica.org’s publisher, has engaged in unproductive back-and-forth with me since last night and through the day today. After asking last night if we could talk in the morning, she said via email, “I can tell you though that our process is very simple and straightforward. Our writers pitch a story and/or let us know they’re writing about it. They write it up with linked sources, and we publish it. Is there something wrong with it?”

I asked about how unnamed sources are vetted, and noted that the story had disappeared from both DailyKos and her site. I asked again to speak on the phone, because email exchanges are generally a terrible way to conduct an interview.

DailyKos writer and New Yorker cartoonist Eric Lewis posted — and then unposted — the Nathan Deal story in his DailyKos diary, leading to the AJC piece. Lewis spoke to me this afternoon. He said that late last night he saw that the AJC had challenged the story, and then noticed that LiberalAmerica.org had taken down the page. “I didn’t want to keep something up that wasn’t credible,” he said. He had originally posted the story after seeing it come through his Twitter feed … posted by Tiffany Willis. He hadn’t vetted it, of course, but at the time it “seemed credible,” he said.

It’s worth noting that DailyKos has nothing other than the error message to mark the passage of the story.

Willis blames a technical glitch for the story falling off of LiberalAmerica.org’s page.

” I can’t speak for Daily Kos, but we’re in the middle of a server transfer from one hosting company to another, and lost everything
we’ve written for the last 2 days, including that story,” Willis replied this morning. “They’re working to recover it. No cover-up here.” She then asked me to be direct.

I laid out my questions. Many, many questions about the identity of the sources, the reporter, the process, the background of the story.

“All fair questions,” she replied. “I’ll get with Andrew (it is a pseudonym, which is OK with us). One of our editors, Liz, is helping us out with this.”

This afternoon, Willis decided to get cute.

“George, why did you leave the other big publications you were writing for to write for a small blog? We ran you and found some alarming things, including a restraining order. Perhaps Andrew is right to be concerned about you knowing his identity? Please explain. Oh and I look forward to hearing your explanation today. Many thanks.”

You all know what the restraining order was about.

Bringing up L’affaire Owens — a badge of honor at this point — is a plain dodge, an indication that Willis simply doesn’t want to explain why she’s been willing to let a pseudonymous author use unnamed sources to suggest the indictment of a sitting governor, despite easily-obtained evidence suggesting otherwise. Nor, I suspect, does she want to discuss why she’s allowing a pseudonymous author to write without telling her readers the name is fake. 

I know this seems like mountains out of molehills. The Internet is rife with fake quotes and fake websites and fake news stories. It goes to my long-term look at civic engagement. Right now, LiberalAmerica.org’s Facebook page has just under 180,000 subscribers, including 16 who are friends of mine. The Nathan Deal post on Facebook has 662 likes and has been shared 567 times. Of the 116 comments on the story, exactly two express any credulity about the story at all.

Liberals look at the comment sections of sites like Fox News or Townhall.com, or World Net Daily or Breitbart.com and wonder what reality those readers inhabit, so completely have they fallen down the rabbit hole of self-congratulatory delusion. Birtherism and Benghazi! Sharia coming to snatch your women! Mexican Ebola! All reinforced in an echo chamber of crazy.

Well, this is what the progressive rabbit hole looks like. It’s just as dangerous to democracy, and progressives seem to be building them at ever-increasing rates … because they create influence. Ask Nathan Deal’s lawyer if you believe otherwise. I fear that progressives will incubate delusions mirroring those on the right in places like this. And we should root them out now before they take hold.

 

9 comments

  1. Well stated, George. This is the type of nonsense story created while most reporters are on vacation and there is virtually no Georgia political news to report. I’m betting it was the interns at the news outlets, not reporters, who moved this along to lift it slightly above the usual swamp noises of social media news.

    • To be fair, this is the type of nonsense that fills the vacuum/void of actual investigative reporting that we lack because the AJC aint the Washington Post or New York Times. Nothing against the many writers at the AJC who are talented. Let’s just say editorial isn’t interesting in interfering with the 100+ year “good news” streak the South is on.

  2. Rich says:

    That is fishy. Reliable news sources are rare. Lately have appreciated the vantage of Free Speech TV, though they’re not without an agenda.

    I liked that Chuck Todd “accidentally told the truth” last Sunday, admitting he couldn’t ask hard questions to politicians lest they boycott his show. Never-mind that NBC is owned by Comcast (lets not expect any real discussion on net neutrality there). Behind Rupert Murdoch, the No. 2 owner of Fox news is Saudi Prince Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, gossake.

    Bias is everyone, but the net is still the best place to locate untainted views/opinions. I’m just careful.

    • greencracker says:

      I’d concur. Certain pols, if you ask “tough questions” (™), will stop talking to you. I’ve had it happen to me.

      OTOH, there are ways around that for God’s sake. Partner up with someone else at your outlet: one of you be good cop, the other be bad. Or heck, let ’em be mad at you, but then have a come-to-Jesus talk with their admin, aide, assistant, spouse, whoever, in order to get a message to the pol that this person could be a go-between. Saves pol’s face because he doesn’t talk to you, he only sends messages via the aide, but helps both of you by still getting his POV in the story.

      The best solution though is for pols to grow a pair. What, somebody told you politics was a gentleman’s game? Ha Ha!

      And huzzah to the pols who answer every single question, not nervous to stand by their actions. You know who you are.

  3. benevolus says:

    Reading “it’s been reported that…” in the news is the equivalent of an acquaintance saying “everybody says…”.

  4. George Chidi says:

    One last note.

    “Andrew Bradford” claims on his blog that he has “spent most of (his) professional life in the fields of journalism, academia, and political activism.”

    I can’t square that with his habit of using unnamed sources as the primary vehicle for several of his stories. One story relies on extended conversations with a pseudonymous police officer. A second relies on an interview with an unnamed former military officer about torture. A third is a series of street interviews about a Clinton/Bush matchup, in which none of the respondents are identified. And a fourth centers on an undocumented immigrant — Maria Torres — who is ostensibly a Georgia Tech student … except I can find no record of a student at Tech under that name. (I happen to be a Tech grad.) And a fifth quotes a pseudonymous political operative at length. The remaining seven stories appear to contain no original source reporting at all. It’s amateurish, at best.

    His Facebook page claims that he is a 1995 graduate of UGA’s journalism school and a 1996 graduate of Cornell’s graduate program in American literature. If that’s true — a stretch, given the source — then unmasking Mr. “Bradford” would be a trivial affair. There are other ways that might be more direct, even if this thin bio is false.

    I don’t care enough to bother. Today.

    Let’s see if he manages to rise to our attention again.

  5. onebyland says:

    Dear George,

    “Notably, Mr. Bradford reported that Deal could not be reached for comment.” Just FYI, most public servants don’t make themselves available to “third string” news outlets.

    I’ve seen first string news outlets make quite a few mistakes, they can be biased and serve a narrow focus of interests.

    “The latter is information pollution, a side effect of a world in which page views can and must be monetized.” – You mean like the paywalls newspapers are resorting to? Or the high fees of cablecos that use Bill Maher on HBO to get people to pay for premium service?

    “Well, this is what the progressive rabbit hole looks like. It’s just as dangerous to democracy, and progressives seem to be building them at ever-increasing rates…” – Beware, George – your political slant makes any scrutiny look suspicious.

    I still believe in the right to privacy and free expression for all, including yours. With free expression, it all comes out in the wash, and even with your criticisms, I don’t think the wash is clean yet. But dialogue is everything in a democracy. Maybe a few more rounds and lots of soap?

  6. Ghost of William F. Buckley says:

    “I hate politics,”
    “That’s the way they all do it,”
    “Of course I would never run for office, it’s a cesspool.”

    The original article plays to each of those sentiments, reinforcing a negative, and USUALLY untrue reality.

    And to all the good Reps, our Governor, and their Staffs doing their best to represent the values and beliefs that allow George and and other journalists the right to publish facts, fiction, and plain lies – God Bless each and every one of you in 2015.

    Happy New Year, folks.

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