When the Washington Post reported on December 30th that Russian hackers had penetrated the Burlington Electric grid in Vermont, the story went viral almost immediately.
The Post’s original link on Facebook has garnered more than 10,000 views and 7,800 shares. NPR’s link to the story accumulated almost 9,000 views and 4,500 shares. NBC News (2,700 views, 1,100 shares), Huffington Post (1,700 views, 500 shares) and ABC News (5,000 views and 2,000 shares) among the outlets who jumped all over the story, fueled by a surge in interest in tales of “Russian hacking” on the heels of the presidential election.
But the story quickly fell apart due to poor sourcing, and perhaps a rush to publish in an effort to capitalize on paranoia surrounding the false narrative of Russian “hacking” the election. The Post eventually issued a full retraction detailing how the false story came to be:
As federal officials investigate suspicious Internet activity found last week on a Vermont utility computer, they are finding evidence that the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility, according to experts and officials close to the investigation.
An employee at Burlington Electric Department was checking his Yahoo email account Friday and triggered an alert indicating that his computer had connected to a suspicious IP address associated by authorities with the Russian hacking operation that infiltrated the Democratic Party. Officials told the company that traffic with this particular address is found elsewhere in the country and is not unique to Burlington Electric, suggesting the company wasn’t being targeted by the Russians.
It’s tempting to scream “FAKE NEWS!” in a case like this, but this is not fake news. It was, however, poor journalism and the perfect example of why news consumers may have turned away from establishment media outlets such as Washington Post, and toward so-called “fake news” sites. When narrative journalism supersedes truth and accuracy, readers at the very least want to be entertained, and Alex Jones is far more entertaining than the Washington Post.
This is a key point that appears to be lost on media outlets such as Buzzfeed and CNN that are waging war against “fake news sites” (websites making profit off bogus fabricated news stories shared on social media) and consumers of news (primarily on the political right) who believe, not without evidence, that the attack on “fake news” is also an attack on right-leaning media.
The Vermont Russian hacker story isn’t fake news with the same intent, but it is a primary, clear cut example of why it thrives. The Washington Post deserves credit for issuing a retraction, even though far fewer people will actually see it compared to the original (factually incorrect) story.
How the Post conducted itself in this case stands in stark contrast to how the New York Times handled a story that confirmed popular left-wing narratives, but ultimately turned out to be false.
In an effort to reflect on post-election Trump hysteria, the Times posted the follow tweet on November 10th:
In California, a student wearing a hijab was robbed by 2 men who made comments about Trump and Muslimshttps://t.co/E2km9hBKH1
— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 10, 2016
The Times story linked to a pair of alleged Trump-related “hate crime” incidents involving Muslims students at Louisiana-Lafayette and San Jose State University. The original story was given the headline, “Police Investigate Attacks on Muslim Students at Two Universities,” and read as follows:
Officials at universities in California said the police were investigating two attacks on Wednesday against female Muslim students, with officials describing one of the episodes as a “hate crime.”
The attacks, coming the day after the nation voted to elect Donald J. Trump, underscored the criticism he had faced throughout his presidential campaign from opponents who said his harsh anti-Muslim language was emboldening extremists.
On Wednesday night, San Jose State University police said in a campuswide email that they were investigating an attack against a female student. A man had approached her from behind earlier in the afternoon and pulled at her hijab, choking her and throwing her off balance, the email said.
“He caused me to choke, and my back arched,” the student, 19-year-old Esra Altun told NBC Bay Area on Thursday. “I tried to pull away from him. I fell on my knees. He didn’t say anything. He ran away as I hit the floor.”
No arrests have been made, but the investigation is ongoing, school spokeswoman Pat Harris said in an emailed statement.
The story appeared in the November 11th print edition of the New York Times under the headline: “Hostile Acts Against Minorities, Often Invoking Trump, Erupt Across U.S.”
The link to the original story can be found here, but you won’t find that part of the story on the New York Times website. It’s been deleted and revised, according to NewsDiff.org, a website that tracks changes in online content.
That’s because the incident at Louisiana State was an admitted hoax. The incident at San Jose state could not be verified either. Both incidents the Times used as a premise to their story turned out to be false. Instead of a correction or retraction or some kind of editor’s note, the changes were made stealthily without informing readers.
The “hostile acts” referenced in the story were fabrications. The Times has done nothing to correct the record. The story currently sits forgotten on the Times website, revised beyond recognition into a narrative of college campuses struggling to “confront hostiles acts against minorities after Donald Trump’s election.”
The tweet reporting the attacks as fact has not been corrected or deleted. The only correction is that the original author of the story, Niraj Chokshi, was demoted to a contributor in a footnote, and reporters Caitlin Dickerson and Stephanie Saul promoted to authors.
In a rush to promote a narrative that confirms their biases—while simultaneously screaming about the dangers of “fake news”—mainstream media outlets are pushing out unconfirmed stories that, in some cases, turn out to be fake. Hate crimes are escalating because of Trump’s election, we’ve been told. The Russians “hacked the election” and stole it from Hillary Clinton.
Neither narratives have turned out to be true, but at least the Washington Post has shown it has the decency to own up to its mistakes, unlike the New York Times.
Note: Stephen Miller is not a senior policy adviser to President-elect Donald Trump. That’s a different Stephen Miller. Sorry.
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