Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Moneymaker the Lawmaker? Bigfooter Wants Law To Punish Hoaxers

This is a reposting of an earlier article, which has been cleaned up and posted normally instead of the experimental image-post that didn't work out so well.

In a recent diatribe on the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) website, Matt Moneymaker harangues readers, demanding laws to protect the media - and by extension, the people - from hoaxers. He cites Tom Biscardi's dead Bigfoot hoax and the recent "balloon boy" debacle as examples of the media being duped.

As you might recall, the latter incident involved a family calling the authorities for help, claiming their youngest son was adrift on a runaway balloon shaped like a flying saucer.

Moneymaker says "Heen [the boy's father and apparent instigator of the hoax] was later charged with a felony for making false statements to law enforcement officers (and other public officials)...but not for hoaxing the press and the public. That part was permissible, and that's why it happens. You can get away with it. There is no real punishment."

Unfortunately what Moneymaker is overlooking is the press' need - nay, obligation - to investigate a story from all angles, remaining impartial and skeptical throughout. What he sees as a failure to protect the media from charlatans, I see as a failure for modern media to do its job.

In the new era of Yellow Journalism, reporters can't be bothered with fact-checking, research, investigative techniques, etc... to bring you the story. An impatient public needs to be fed and fed often - usually junk. So, they send out half-baked stories, bolstered by hearsay, supported by tweets, and visualized by YouTube. They would argue that it's a must; there are simply too many sources of information to compete with, and that to remain successful one must embrace alternative modes of reporting.

Does this, however, mean that fact-checking must die out like the dinosaurs? Does this mean that there is no longer time for savvy editors and producers to say let's wait on this, see what develops? Must everything be "breaking news" until it becomes nothing more than pointless screen watching?

How many times in recent memory can you recall having watched CNN coverage of a standoff or such and had to endure rambling reporters who, in the end, have managed to utter no facts? It's always a lot of speculation sprinkled with anchor commentaries before cutting to the pursed lip, finger wag of someone like Nancy Grace.

But Moneymaker says "blaming the news media for these situations is like blaming the victim." However, if we allow the inverse, we would be letting the media off the hook. They could then let their standards fall to whatever abysmal depths they should choose simply because we've thrown up our hands and said it's not their fault they fell for it.

"There is also the issue of fairness: If we demand high standards from news people, then we should also demand high standards from those who provide information to news people."

This statement is so patently absurd as to be risible. We rely upon professional journalists to get to the heart of a story, to penetrate to the truth. It's no different than a law enforcement officers job. Do they rely on suspects to tell them the truth because we would hope they hold themselves to a high moral standard? No. It is assumed that what is being told to the officer might not be the truth and needs to be checked out, investigated.

Moneymaker calls for a federal statute that would make it illegal to present false statements to the media in the execution of a hoax. He has faith that lawmakers will be able to hash out the legalese that would separate simply making an untrue statement from more organized forms of fraud. He further goes on to explain that this statute would narrowly apply only to the "breaking news" variety of media, as it most impacts the viewer. He mentions in his piece, "Nowadays, news directors make quick decisions about whether to go live to a breaking news story." This would, of course, exonerate the media from any culpability in reporting a half-baked story.

Still, journalists - as bad as they've become - continue to keep their language open. It's an alleged case of this or according to _____, John Doe was... This should (and frankly does) tell the public that not all the facts are in yet and that in legal situations we are innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. We sometimes forget this in a world that increasingly judges our legality in the press long before the courtroom.

In my opinion, Moneymaker's ideas run dangerously close to trampling on freedoms, further tattering the First Amendment. For as much as it is the obligation of the press to report factually, accurately, wholly, and impartially, it is also our obligation to exercise common sense and investigate for ourselves. We cannot become automatons, vegetating before the flickering tube of unquestioned knowledge.


Cullan Hudson said...

Post comments following a similarly-themed article by an Australian reporter, Brigid Delaney, in her article entitled, "Hoaxes may fee the hungry beast, but they erode trust."

Brigid I think you're missing the point; if journalists such as yourself and media outlets were actually doing their jobs properly i.e. checking the facts and not just instantly publishing any ridiculous story that crosses their desk there wouldn't be a problem.
Trust is eroded and rightly so, we expect the news to be checked fact by the news outlets that are putting it out as fact!
What makes you think these media outlets deserve any trust if they are not using due diligence and checking these stories are in fact true before publishing them? In most cases a 2 minute google search would have uncovered the so-called fraud.
The media need to pick up their game the only fraud here has been perpetrated by the media outlets themselves... against their readers!!!

RUKidding? | Melbourne - October 23, 2009, 7:32AM

There are serious holes in your argument. Two cases in the last twelve months stand out.
One, the phony tip offs in Melbourne, and two, the Pauline Hanson photos which are noticeably absent from this piece. In both cases, all that was required to confirm or refute the information was a phone call.
In the case of the Pauline Hanson photos, a Google search of some of the basic facts would have immediately cast doubt on the claims of Jack Johnson, the Sydney pensioner who supplied them "to pay for his medical bills."
Similarly, the documentary filmmakers argued the claims could be easily checked. The celebrities who were the subject of the scam were in the area at the time, but aside from that, no details were given.
Why didn't the Tabloid newspapers take two minutes to call Amy Winehouse's media people to check if her hair was really on fire? According to the documentary, some of the fake stories even accumulated quotes from "anonymous sources" as the story circulated.
Depressing though it is, I would argue that this kind of prank actually is a good one. It certainly unmasked the London tabloids. Because I so value the accuracy of news reporting, and I personally have a stake in quality journalism continuing in Australia, I don't accept that journalists can lay blame on the pranksters in these two cases. Sure the journalists are overworked, sure there's commercial pressure, but if news organizations are to survive, they must offer something blogs and Google can't. Accuracy.

The balloon incident and the Youtube jacket were a waste of time and detrimental to society, but these two examples are quite different and I'm a little surprised that you would dump them all in the same basket.

Susan Wilson | Elwood - October 23, 2009, 8:29AM

What you cite is hardly news. Even the boy in the balloon was a spectacle more than world news. You are not victims of pranksters but perpetuators and participators of the great dumbing down.

Isn't it the media's fault?? Or at least at what stage in all of this do you take responsibility? Trivia as news? Emotive language? Exaggerated headlines? Scoop before facts? Bias? Journalism died a long time ago and the irony of the boy in the balloon is lost on you.

Did you hear yourself? "the next time a boy disappears in a balloon..."

And just to ensure the media is not blamed it was the evil marketers! They're the one your honour, they made us do it... They seem to be the only ones taking responsibility for anything!

Taos - October 23, 2009, 8:10AM

Cullan Hudson said...

This is the link to the aforementioned article.