In Praise of Online Journalism
We helped bust Slate's hoax.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, June 27, 2001
On Monday Michael Kinsley, editor of Microsoft's online magazine Slate.com, admitted he'd been the victim of a hoax. Writer Jay Forman turned out to have fabricated every important element of a June 7 Slate story in which he claimed to have gone "monkeyfishing"--using fishing poles to catch primates--in the Florida Keys. Mr. Kinsley's acknowledgment came in response to a New York Times article in which reporter Alex Kuczynski thoroughly debunked Mr. Forman's story.
A setback for online journalism and a victory for the traditional print form? Not quite. Before it came to the Times' attention, the monkeyfishing tale spurred a heated online controversy, the evolution of which is an example of how what critics view as Internet journalism's worst vices in fact work to keep journalists honest.
Those criticisms are familiar enough: Internet journalism favors offhand commentary rather than in-depth reporting. It encourages endless logrolling, commentary about commentary about commentary. It provides a forum for dilettantes, who aren't subject to professional journalistic standards.
All these factors were at play in the monkeyfishing controversy, which, I am proud to say, I started. The day after the piece appeared, I wrote an item for the "Best of the Web Today" column on OpinionJournal.com, in which I observed that the monkeyfishing story was an obvious hoax.
I lacked proof, other than that the article was simply beyond belief for anyone with a modicum of common sense. Sample: "Fruits were the bait of choice. . . . Once the bait was on the hook, I watched as the monkeyfisherman cast it onto the island, then waited. Not for long. The monkeys swarmed round the treat, and when the fisherman felt a strong tug he jerked the pole. I knew he had hooked one by the shriek it made--a primal yowl that set my hair on end. The monkey came flying from the trees, a juicy apple stapled to its palm."
Soon two other online journalists were chasing the story. Ken Sanes, who runs his own site called TransparencyNow.com, published an article questioning two other Forman pieces in Slate. (Mr. Kinsley acknowledged on Monday that Mr. Forman had misrepresented an anecdote in one of those stories.) Seth Mnookin of Inside.com also wrote a skeptical piece, in which he reported that Mr. Kinsley was conducting an investigation of Mr. Forman's work.
That "investigation" proved to be something of a sham. Mr. Kinsley pronounced that Slate stood by the monkeyfishing story, solely on the basis of an interview with an anonymous Forman friend who, Mr. Kinsley claimed, "confirms Forman's description . . . in every important detail except the year." The Times' Ms. Kuczynski identified the friend as Marc Caputo, a reporter for the Palm Beach Post, and reported that Mr. Caputo said Slate asked only about "the logistics of the trip, rather than the specifics, like snagging a monkey from a tree." Messrs. Caputo and Forman had indeed gone on a fishing trip--sans simians. The monkey business was just a fish story.
So why is this a victory for online journalism? Granted, it took a newspaper exposé before Messrs. Forman and Kinsley finally backed down from their insistence that the story was true. But it seems unlikely that the Forman piece would have been worthy of the New York Times' attention absent the controversy it provoked. And I certainly wouldn't have bothered airing my doubts on the Journal's editorial page, let alone publishing (at last count) more than 4,000 words on the topic. (To read the entire oeuvre click here.)
If Mr. Kinsley had published this article back in the 1980s, when he edited The New Republic, it's quite possible the hoax would have gone undetected. Indeed, in the mid- to late-1990s, his successors at TNR published at least 27 wholly or partially fabricated articles by Stephen Glass--and it was an online reporter, Adam Penenberg of Forbes.com, who finally figured it out. Back in the Industrial Age (1981), it took a Pulitzer Prize to smoke out the journalistic fraud of the Washington Post's Janet Cooke.
The arrival of the Internet has amounted to a massive deregulation of the marketplace of ideas. Freed of the constraints of space and the rigors of format, journalists have more freedom to do eccentric things like comment on silly articles in other publications (the bread and butter of "Best of the Web Today"). What's more, with fewer barriers to entry, it's easier for truth-tellers to find (or create) a soapbox.
One such site is Snopes.com, devoted to cataloging urban legends. Want to know if that story about the "e-mail tax" is true? Log in and find out. (It isn't, but that didn't stop journalist Marcia Kramer from asking Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio their positions on it during a Senate debate last October.)
Then there's Smartertimes.com, a site my colleague Ira Stoll (he helps me compile "Best of the Web Today") started just over a year ago. Each day Mr. Stoll pores over the New York Times looking for factual errors, bias or just plain sloppiness. The paper takes his critiques seriously; he tells me he's seen internal Times memos citing them.
None of this is to disparage old-style newspaper journalism (which I still practice on occasion). The point, rather, is that the deregulated marketplace of ideas has behaved just as you'd expect: There's plenty of junk journalism and crackpot commentary, but ultimately the market rewards merit. Mr. Kinsley has just had a painful reminder of that truth.
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