WITN?: Yahoo didn't sentence 200,000 Iranians to death, and other misadventures in online journalism

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Internet Archaeology: In which the internet's sordid past is preserved and curated

dohIn one of those wonderful ironies of scheduling that make columnists weep with joy, Larry Dignan spent yesterday at a Yahoo! hack day in New York.

This is the same Larry Dignan who is Editor in Chief of ZDNet, which is the same ZDNet that yesterday published a blog post accusing Yahoo of passing the names and email addresses of thousands – sorry, hundreds of thousands -  of bloggers to the Iranian authorities during the country’s recent election.

Poor old Larry. One can only imagine the warmth with which he was greeted when he arrived at Yahoo’s event. “Hey Larry!” his hosts may perhaps have said “go fuck yourself.” And their suggestion wouldn’t be entirely unfair, given that the story – written by ‘lawyer and technology writer’ Richard Koman, was a steaming pile of horseshit.

How much horseshit? Let’s break it down, just for giggles. Koman’s unnamed source for the story was a guy who had translated an Iranian blog post written in Farsi. The post – which, let’s say it again, was written in Farsi, which Koman doesn’t speak – was published on the blog of an avowedly anti-government Iranian student group. In the original post, which Koman quoted without a secondary source or an independent translation, it was claimed that Yahoo’s Malaysian subsidiary had passed on the information after access to their Iranian site was blocked by Tehran. Yahoo doesn’t have an Iranian site, nor does it have a base of operations in Malaysia. Neither Koman nor anyone else at ZDNet bothered to put the allegations to Yahoo before publishing a story which Koman admitted he hadn’t got entirely “buttoned down”.

I emailed Larry to find out what on earth went wrong. Is there even a jot of editorial oversight on ZDNet’s blogs? I asked him. Didn’t the fact that the sole source for the story was someone who had translated an avowedly biased blog written in Farsi by students in opposition to the Iranian government give him or any other ZDNet editor pause?

In response, Larry was candid in the way that only a man who has spent the day at a hack day organised by people he’d accused of sentencing two hundred thousand Iranians to death can be….

“Our bloggers publish on their own schedule and post themselves. We backread posts and sometimes read them in advance, but generally we trust our bloggers will follow journalistic principles.  And many of them have years of experience and are experts in their fields. In five years of ZDNet blogging we have had few issues of shoddy journalism within our blog network. We trust the bloggers we select to use good judgment and alert us to any potential problems. This was an gross error from a seasoned blogger, and we should have been more on top of it.”

Kudos, Larry. And kudos for publishing a such a prompt and detailed retraction. But yes, you should have been more on top of it. Here’s why…

Earlier this year TechCrunch published a story titled ‘Did Last.fm just hand over listener data to the RIAA?‘ (Spoiler alert: no). In the story, we – by which I mean, not me – quoted an apparently rock solid (and English speaking) source who claimed that Last had been tricked by parent-company CBS into passing on a whole bunch of listener information to the recording industry. An outcry promptly ensued, especially after TechCrunch’s source disappeared without trace and both Last.fm and CBS issued categorical denials. A source at CBS was quoted by Ars Technica describing our – which is to say not my – story as “irresponsible journalism” while Last’s Richard Jones went even further in a blog post headed ‘Techcrunch are full of shit.’

Despite doing our best to verify the story, including roping in additional sources, we – which is to say, not me – were left with some egg on our faces. At the time, I was still writing for the Guardian where I wrote a couple of brilliantly insightful columns about the incident, including one in which I lectured TechCrunch – and by extension all bloggers – on how writing on a blog doesn’t excuse you from the rules of journalism 101.

Specifically I offered some lessons that professional blogs might want to carry over from old media. Stop allowing bloggers to post their own stories without passing them first through an editor. Don’t publish a story accusing a company of malpractice without first giving them a chance to deny it. That kind of thing. And yet, eight months on, ZDNet still operates a policy – as does TechCrunch (mostly), as did the Telegraph when I wrote for them – where ‘trusted’ bloggers can post stories without so much as a gramme of editorial oversight, and without anyone ensuring that the subject of the story has been contacted for comment.

Enough.

Trusting the common sense  of your writers is all well and good – but when it comes to breaking news, where journalistic adrenaline is at its highest and everyone is paranoid about being scooped by a competitor, that common sense can too easily become the first casualty. Journalists get caught up in the moment; we get excited and we post stupid crap from a foreign language student blog and call it news. And then within half a minute – bloggers being what they are – the news gets repeated and repeated until it becomes fact. Fact that can affect share prices or ruin lives. This is the reality of the blogosphere, where Churchill’s remark: that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on” is more true, and more potentially damaging, than at any time in history.

I was going to reply with all of this to Larry, to tell him about our – which is to say not my – run in with CBS and to sympathise with him over how easy it is for this kind of thing to happen. He’d had a bad day after all, and he didn’t need anyone making it worse. But then I clicked ‘reply’, saw Larry’s email address and experienced one of those wonderful moments of serendipity that make columnists weep with joy. Because seeing Larry’s email address reminded me which company owns ZDNet. That company…?

CBS.

Did CBS just accuse Yahoo of handing over user data to the Iranians? Oh yes they fucking did. Thank you baby Jesus.

I thought for a moment whether it was mean to gloat. Whether it was unfair to write a post reminding CBS of their “irresponsible journalism” remark. Wouldn’t that just be mean? Shouldn’t I at least give Larry a chance to respond to the irony? Perhaps I should check with my editor before posting – yunno, make sure I’ve got everything buttoned down.

And then I remembered. I’m a blogger. And that’s just not how we do things.

Click.

Post.

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