Last week, there was yet another news frenzy over something that happened on social media. A Muslim Northwestern University chaplain, Tahera Ahmad, wrote on her Facebook page that she was in "tears of humiliation from discrimination" because a flight attendant refused to give her an unopened can of soda. Ahmad claimed that she was told that this was so she couldn't use the can of soda as a weapon, and that another passenger told her, "You Moslem, you need to shut the f— up.”
Pretty soon the story was flying around social media, and a hashtag campaign #unitedfortahera popped up. Major news outlets, such as CNN, ABC News, and the Washington Post, covered the story. The Daily Show used the whole episode as the launching point for a bit about the allegedly rampant Islamophobia consuming America. United went into crisis PR mode, publicly apologized, and reassigned the flight attendant in question.
What's really remarkable about this story is, near as I can tell, at no point in the last week did any of these major media outlets try and independently verify the details of of Ahmad's story.
Well, according to the Savvy Stews travel website, passengers who were on board the same flight have posted messages on the Internet with very specific details about what transpired that appear to contradict Ahmad's story and portray her as the one being rude and out of line. For the record, Ahmad's story always struck me as not entirely credible for lots of reasons, including the fact that I personally have been denied an unopened Coke Zero on a flight, and as a white Christian male, this did not occur to me to be a discriminatory act. Indeed, the Savvy Stews point out that there are all sorts of logistical reasons -- e.g. there's a limited number of Coke Zeros in the small beverage carts -- why flight attendants may not be inclined or able to give someone a full can of soda.
Anyway, my hunches aside, I would like to note that what's happened with this story is a complete and total perversion of journalism. Whether it's simply for clicks or because folks are anxious enough to promote any account of injustice that reinforces the media's center-left world view, it is inexcusable to turn someone's one-sided Facebook post into a national news story without making an effort to verify the details.
The media should be chastened by their previous behavior -- they've been burned multiple times by amplifying the bountiful harvest of social media hoaxes. In 2013, a lesbian waitress in New Jersey raked in thousands in donations after the media picked up on her Facebook post that featured a photo of a receipt where her customer allegedly denied her a tip and wrote that it was because "I do not agree with your lifestyle." The whole episode turned out to have been made up by the waitress.
Accounts like these have real world consequences. The flight attendant in question has been reassigned, and who knows how this has been detrimental for her. Beyond accepting Ahmad's words at face(book) value, I have yet to see any real proof that she did anything wrong.
Finally, journalists who think that a single, unverified account left on someone's Facebook page is all they need to hang a story on ought to think long and hard about the incentives they are creating for people. Knowing that there's a good chance you can say anything and it won't be investigated and corroborated is just going to encourage a lot of people who have very unhealthy motives to aspire to be the victim du jour.
Maybe Tahera Ahmad was treated unfairly and discriminated against, but it's really appalling that the facts of what happened to her would not be established before we mess with a flight attendant's career, drag an airline through the mud, and use the episode as a launching point for a national conversation about Islamophobia.
But I guess this is what passes for "journalism" these days.
Even as diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia remain decidedly chilly over the Ukrainian conflict, the State Department is reaching out to "up-and-coming" Russian journalists. A recent $150,000 grant offering from the U.S.
The U.S. State Department is looking to design and facilitate a media ethics course for journalists in India, and has even proposed appropriating the name of Robin Thicke's 2013 hit "Blurred Lines" as a title for the course. The U.S.
Today, Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau became the first cartoonist to ever receieve a George Polk Award. During the festivities*, he remarked that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo -- the satirical Parisian magazine that was recently the site of a terror attack -- "wandered into the realm of hate speech.” He also added that “free speech... becomes its own kind of fanaticism.”
If anyone was unsure of the veracity of Rolling Stone's account of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, the final nail is now in the story's coffin. Sunday night, the Columbia School of Journalism released its much anticipated blistering report on the magazine's November feature.
I don't think very much of Vox.com and its journalistic standards. I've made the case against them before in detail, but the evidence of their general lack of professionalism is still piling up. Vox has a daily email newsletter written by Matthew Yglesias, and today's missive contains the following gem:
Two weeks ago, Rolling Stone published a bombshell piece that rocked the academic world. In the story, author Sabrina Erdely detailed a horrific crime — a gang rape at one of the fraternities at the University of Virginia that allegedly took place two years ago.
Someone I'm related to by marriage has written a superb column on the problem of media ignorance. The fact I'm not a disinterested observer shouldn't stop me from noting that the column and the event that prompted it has attracted some attention. The piece is pegged to a much discussed interview talk radio star Hugh Hewitt conducted with Zach Carter, the Huffington Post’s “senior political economy reporter.” Hewitt asked Carter why he was spouting off various critical opinions related to Dick Cheney and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Certainly, Carter's not alone here -- the rise of ISIS has had liberal journalists queuing up to insist President Obama bears minimal responsibility for the disintegration of the situation in Iraq. Joe Biden bet his vice presidency Iraq would extend the Status of Forces Agreement, and had they not failed, it might well have prevented the current mess. But here we are.
Another reporter is joining the Obama administration. Emily Pierce, the deputy editor of Roll Call, will be joining the office of public affairs at the Department of Justice, the federal agency headed by Attorney General Eric Holder.
Pierce was welcomed to her new position by Brian Fallon, who works in that DOJ office and who used to be Chuck Schumer's spokesman in the Senate.
"Can't wait to welcome @emilyprollcall to @TheJusticeDept Office of Public Affairs later this month. She is a true pro," Fallon said on Twitter.
Like Diogenes in search of an honest man, The Scrapbook has been on an extended quest to find the Golden Age of American journalism. That was the era, not so long ago, when a literate public was downright serious about the news, and America’s newspapers, magazines, and television networks paid close, detailed attention to current events, foreign affairs, and national politics—which, of course, were civil in tone, bipartisan in nature, and concerned with finding solutions rather than exploiting problems.
The Scrapbook has previously commented on the “new breed of pundit/political scientist who seems to think that a pie chart is a substitute for argument.” Whether it’s the fault of an education system and corporate sector saturated with PowerPoint presentations, the increasing desperation of polemicists, reporters, and poli-sci types to cast their work as hard “science,” or just the rising tide of philistinism, it seems an ever-growing number of writers and thinkers have taken to substituting the siren song of the computer-generated chart for the hard work of written argument.