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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dirty Bombs on Sunday...Jerry Weller and a Page...Gatekeeping ruminations...

This post is blogging-related. It's net-related. It's new media-related. It's long and it's a rant of sorts. It isn't necessarily "writing" related. Proceed at your own risk.

Yesterday afternoon, I was channel flipping from my desk and saw an aerial shot of a football stadium on Fox News (you have no idea how difficult it is for me to type the words "Fox" and "News" next to one another, by the way). The voiceover promised a breaking story about a risk of terrorist activities at NFL stadiums this Sunday. I stopped clicking and decided to wait out the commercials.

In the meantime, I did a bit of Googling and found an AP wire story on the topic. It stated that a post on a website indicated that multiple dirty bomb attacks would occur this weekend and that the death toll from this Osama-supported killing spree would make 9/11 look small by comparison.

The article also discussed how the government had notified the NFL and the individual teams about the threat. It indicated that the authorities were being extra cautious about all of this, because there was really no reason to believe the threat was credible.

The commercial break on Fox concluded and John Gibson started jawing over a "FOX NEWS ALERT" graphic. He engaged in a recitation of the same information outlined in the AP story. There was a post on an unnamed site. It promised dirty bomb attacks. The authorities and the stadium officials had communicated about the threat. The threat isn't believed to be credible.

Gibson then brought a guest onto the program to discuss the matter in greater detail. She indicated that there was a threat made on a site. She said it involved targeting multiple stadiums with radiological weapons. She mentioned that the government and the football teams had discussed the matter. She told us that the threat wasn't particularly credible and that the government was telling people there was no need to change their plans and that Sunday was still safe for football. They were saying that, she said, because the threat wasn't credible. If you want more nuts and bolts, you can read News Hounds' play-by-play.

During this exchange, I pulled a quoted portion of the alleged threat from the AP story and ran it through Google. I learned that the threat had been made by some goofball at a forum known as "The Friends Society" (it has a connection to another name, it appears, "The F**k Society). By that time, the site was already down, but several pages were cached by Google and that gave me a good chance to get a feel for the forum and the credibility of the participants. I also found the same material, dated October 3, on another obscure site.

I'm not a j-school grad. I take media matters seriously and probably know and think more about journalism, news, etc. than does the average guy on the street, but I am not on anyone's short list of media scholars. Nonetheless, I was able to use a secret trio of weapons--reading comprehension, a willingness to investigate, and Google--to learn more about the threat that warranted aerial photos and a "FOX NEWS ALERT" than the people at Fox News seemed to know within three minutes.

The news media was telling us that the threat lacked credibility. They said it in every piece I read and on every broadcast I saw. They made sure to mention that there was no reason to be afraid. Then, of course, they tacked headlines like "Raiders Game among those Targeted in Dirty Bomb Threat" on the AP story (that's the headline the Sacramento Bee used) and they got the aerial file footage out and assaulted the eyes with garish "NEWS ALERT" graphics. They called in experts. They reported it like news. They created credibility where none existed.

That silly post could have just sat in that silly forum where a few people would have read it. It could have silently disappeared into the archives of the forum like millions of stupid posts before it and millions of lies to follow. Instead, however, someone decided to make it into news.

Obviously, in this era of heightened security, the government will take this kind of crap more seriously than it needs to be taken, just to be safe. They will take a few minutes to follow-up on stuff like that in order to make sure it is baseless. I can understand that. I don't necessarily begrudge that kind of attention to detail, either. However, a government evaluation of a silly forum post is not news. It's not even close.

Note: If additional investigation should somehow show that the threat was newsworthy or legitimate, that will be a surprise, but it won't validate the media's treatment of the story at this point. It certainly isn't news at this point.

Here's why that matters. The more traditional media likes to assail bloggers and online citizen-journalists as a poor substitute for the real thing. They like to remind us of how much we need their editorial intelligence. They paint a horrible picture of information exchange in a world without wise gatekeepers. They have made that gatekeeping role and their ostensible ability to separate wheat from chaff one of the primary reasons we are supposed to prefer them to the likes of The Daily Kos and a million other blogs. The new media, they say, can never be the fourth estate because there is control and no ability to distinguish quality from crap.

And then they are more than willing to take a non-story, catapult it to the status of "NEWS ALERT," tack nutty headlines onto the story, call in experts to talk about it, and do everything possible to make people wonder whether there is a chance that Sebastian Janikowski is going to get a dirty bomb stuffed into his jock when he kicks off during the Raiders game. It's repulsive and incredibly irresponsible.

Yes, they said the threat was not credible. They made that clear. If it's not credible, however, why cover it?

If there is a legitimate reason to cover the story, it certainly doesn't relate to the actual claim of a planned Sunday Bloody Sunday at seven different stadiums. I can see doing a feature about how the government sifts through loads of crap in their quest for good intel. There are some other neat feature story ideas about the nature of forum communication, the power of onine rumor, etc., that might mention posts like the one in question here. But covering the fact that a dumbass said something stupid does not make a lick of sense when the best sales pitch for your very existence is your ability to distinguish real news from nonsense.

Right as I finished the last paragraph, Fox was on the "story" again. A 20-something from Milwaukee is now being questioned in relation to the post. He came forward after the story broke, apparently. Catherine Herridge, the Fox contributor who was jabbering about this, advised us that (a) Homeland Security thinks this is nonsense, (b) the FBI has no credible intelligence to back these claims up, (c) that the originally followed up on the post as early as Monday, (d) the authorities quickly debunked the story and (e) that there are no "streams of intelligence" supporting the risk of an attack.

By the way, I doubt the kid in Milwaukee is the original source for the crazy dirty bomb threat. As mentioned, the seven stadium spectacular was mentioned as early as October 3 at Justcurio.us, "an anonymous question and answer system, open to anyone, with one simple rule: to ask a question, you must first answer someone else's question." If you want to read the whole thing, and you skipped the earlier link, you can find it here. The original poster there had an Australian IP address. Nothing's impossible, but it seems unlikely that the Wisconsinite currently talking with the Feds would be pushing the same story in a different forum ten days earlier while spoofing and Aussie IP and would then come forward.

So, how did they end the story? "Sounds like everything is okey dokey"? "Well, it seems as though we have wasted time and resources pimping this stupid non-story"? "Maybe we should leave this one alone, it doesn't look like news to me"?

Nope. They wondered aloud whether this really was a mere prank or if it might perhaps be part of a deliberate campaign of disinformation designed to influence the November elections. How much more pathetic can on get? The only disinformation campaign seems to be coming from the media.

Last night, I had a friend who operates a business call me. He said that he had been talking to a friend, a doctor, who had heard something on the radio about how terrorists planned on blowing up a series of NFL games with briefcase nukes. This morning, my insurance agent asked me if I thought all of this news about a potential bombing was going to keep people away from the games.

That's what happens when we rely on media gatekeeping, I guess. We get their disinformation campaigns designed to boost circulation and ratings.

Meanwhile, rumors of another page-diddler amongst Republican house members led to several blogs identifying Jerry Weller of Illinois as the next Mark Foley. They allege he did something improper with a sixteen year-old page. If you check Technorati, "Jerry Weller" and "Weller" are both among the top 15 most searched for terms. This rumor tidal wave is growing rapidly.

It'll be interesting to see if the bloggers are right. I know that a large percentage of them are partisan hacks looking to score points before the elections and aren't too concerned with some of the bigger news/media issues at play in situations like this, but those larger matters are at play.

If the net scooped the TV/Newspaper/Radio people again and got the news right a day before the ostensibly better-trained and more talented people who are keeping us busy with football terrorism fairy tales, it's at least one whack on one nail in the traditional media's coffin.

If the blogosphere blew it, though, and Weller is clean, that might be a sign that we are left to wallow in crap from both sides of the new media divide.

Oh, by the way, as I started inserting the photos into this post, the folks at Fox News were having a roundtable discussion about "what makes a threat credible." Progress? Not really. It mainly consisted of each goon rambling on about how vulnerable we all are. Scared yet?

UPDATE: I was just informed that Fox News had another "FOX NEWS ALERT" stating that the Sunday threat was a "hoax." No kidding. I guess the fear-mongering cycle is about 24 hours long or something. Meanwhile, all's quiet on the Weller front...