(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.