Smith and Herrman are absolutely wrong that a compelling yet false factoid, being shared willy-nilly across various social-media platforms, “will become news on that merit alone”. News is something true and important and relevant; it is not, and should never be, misinformation. Neither is it “whatever our readers happen to be finding on the internet”. Smith and Herrman are essentially taking a hugely important story, here, and reducing it to the status of covering a viral meme: the Gangnamization of terror. I have no problem with news stories covering viral sensations, but they’re what you do after you cover the important stuff. They’re not the important stuff themselves.
Which is not to say that BuzzFeed did a bad job last week. Debunking corrosive memes is a genuine public service, and it’s great that outlets like BuzzFeed and Gawker are doing it. Where I part with Smith and Herrman, however, is in their implication that everybody else — the NYT, the WSJ, the Boston Globe, Reuters, Bloomberg, CNN — should be doing it as well. That’s silly, and I can’t believe that many people would want to live in a world where a relatively small number of Redditors could effectively set the news agenda for the entire country.
My favorite part:
Given the amount of information pouring onto the internet every minute, it’s statistically inevitable that a substantial amount of that information is going to be erroneous — especially when the source is something as unedited as Reddit or Twitter. No mainstream journalism outlet should allow its coverage of a major story to be hijacked by backchannel noise — especially when a large part of the value such outlets provide is that they filter out the noise and transmit only a reliable signal. Just because your readers can peer behind the curtain, doesn’t mean you have any responsibility to yank it open yourself.
Let’s imagine that instead of sending a handful of investigators from the ATF and the Chemical Safety Board to West, Texas, we marshaled every local, state and federal resource available to discover the exact sequence of events that led to the explosion. Let’s imagine that the question—Why?—became so urgent that the nation simply could not rest until it had overdetermined the answers. We’d discover that OSHA hadn’t inspected the plant in 28 years—did this play a role in the disaster? If it’s found that the company that owns the plant, Adair Grain, violated safety regulations, as it had last year at another facility, we might call it criminal negligence and attribute culpability. But would we ascribe ideology? And which ideology would we indict? Deregulation? Austerity? Capitalism? Would we write headlines that say—Officials Seek Motive in Texas Fertilizer Explosion? And could we name “profit” as that motive in the same way that we might name, say, “Islam” as the motive for terrorism? Would we arrest the plant’s owners, deny them their Miranda rights and seek to try them in an extra-legal tribunal outside the Constitution, as Senator Lindsey Graham has suggested we treat US citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Would we call for a ban on the production of ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia? Would we say that “gaps and loopholes” in our nation’s agricultural policies were responsible for the tragedy, as Senator Chuck Grassley has suggested about immigration in the Boston bombing case?
No, we won’t. We won’t do any of these things, because even if the West fertilizer plant disaster is ultimately understood as something more than “just an accident,” it will still be taken as the presumed cost of living in a modern, industrialized economy.