Earlier this week I wrote about the one-two egg-facing of the Internet when it turned out that a make-up test pic of the Joker sent to Aint It Cool News was fake and that Collider’s scoop that the Hulk would be grey in the upcoming sequel was incorrect. The moral of the story, I felt, was simple: check your sources. The day after I wrote that, someone else got fucked by the exact same lack of source checking, except this time it was the ‘Old Media.’
On April 24th, the Fox and Friends morning show did a piece about a real incident in Maine where a student placed a ham steak in a bag near a group of Muslim Somalis. The problem for Fox and Friends was that they used the site Associated Content as their source, and more specifically the work of a man named Nicholas Plagman. Associated Content is one of those ‘Look how democratic the Internet is’ sites, which allows ‘citizen journalists’ to upload news stories that they write. Plagman’s stories tend to be right-skewing views on real news, often with outrageous and I guess supposedly satirical exaggerations thrown in. In the case of the ham steak incident, Plagman included fake quotes like this one attributed to the local school superintendent: "These children have got to learn that ham is not a toy, and that there are consequences for being nonchalant about where you put your sandwich." Plagman also claims that the head of the Center for Prevention of Hate Violence said, "If people think insulting Muslims with ham is okay, more degrading acts will follow. The Jews had to go through the same thing when the Nazis would force-feed them bacon; do we really want our schools to become concentration camps?" In the article he quotes one of the Muslim students as saying, "we didn’t know what was in this bag. One of my friends reached inside it. It was a big ham steak. There were five of us at the table, all Somali. Right then, I could feel allah condemning me to burn for eternity for being within a 6.2 meter radius of ham, so yeah, it was a hate crime."
Obviously Fox and Friends being suckered is a bigger deal than Aint It Cool News being suckered. As Drew McWeeny, a guy who I genuinely like as a writer and a person, pointed out in a brief rebuttal to my editorial, “If we were reporting on something like politics or science or medicine or international finance, then, yes, I would think stringent fact-checking would be very important.” Interestingly, he writes this in the intro to a test screening review of the Kevin Costner murder movie Mr. Brooks, a review that even he acknowledges reads a hell of a lot like a plant. So this raises two questions for me:
1) What is the value of running faked photos or plant test screening reviews? It’s a pretty regular thing to see an obviously fake review hitting AICN after a test screening, since the studio publicity department knows the site will get legit ones as well and they want their spin in there. There have been negative plants submitted by rival studios hoping to kill some of the buzz on a competing picture. And obviously there are people sending bad information to the site on purpose, trying to get one over on the crew. Drew says that many faked news items don’t make it to the site, but I guess the question must be, why not? Why filter some bullshit and not other bullshit? Where is the line that some bullshit is too egregious? Frankly I see zero benefit to me or anyone else in reading a review of a movie typed up by an intern in the studio marketing department. Either filter the stuff or don’t and just become a Digg-type site where the users get to decide what they think is worthy.
2) Why is fact-checking not important at all? Variety, The New York Times, The LA Times, The Hollywood Reporter all also write about entertainment stories, often the very same ones we cover. Should these publications not be sure of their facts before going to press? If Sharon Waxman is writing something in the New York Times, I like to be able to at least reasonably expect what she’s writing about to be true. I don’t quite understand why that basic level of accuracy shouldn’t apply to the web as well. I know that there’s an implied concept of selling out involved when it comes to this – that by seeking confirmation you’re playing The Man’s game, but I don’t really buy that. I don’t think Helen Thomas has sold out because she’s sitting in the White House briefing room asking questions of the Press Secretary.
There’s another side to that as well, though, and it’s this little belief that what we do doesn’t matter. It’s not important. It’s a lark. Which is a weird attitude to have, since we’re all spending a lot of time doing it. Obviously I don’t think that what internet movie sites do is as important as what a war correspondent in Baghdad is doing, but that doesn’t mean you don’t take pride in your work. I grew up working class, and that’s something that was ingrained in me from a young age – no matter what you’re doing, try to do it well because it’s you doing it.
Even beyond that bit of pride, what we do does matter, at least in the scheme of the movie business. There are a lot of people in the industry who point at Aint It Cool’s early herding of bad buzz as one of the main reasons Batman & Robin was DOA at the box office. Shia LaBeouf lied about being in talks for Indy IV because when that sort of stuff hits the press too early, deals don’t get closed. What we write on the Internet has the possibility to hurt a movie’s grosses or to change the course of someone’s career. It’s not exposing corruption in the Attorney General’s office, but it’s having an impact.
So where does the ‘ham is not a toy’ story fit in to all of this? It’s all corrosion at the edges of journalism, which is really bad news since the whole thing has been decaying from the middle outwards for years. There was once a belief that the Internet would be a great equalizer when it came to information, that without the corporate controllers to suppress what made it on the nightly news we would see more truth creeping in from the fringes. But all I see is more and more bullshit.
When Harry started Aint It Cool News, there was one thing that was very different from today: access. He had none. Now he does, as do many of us. With that access comes the opportunity to pursue more accuracy, more truth. When writing his mea culpa for the faked Joker picture, Quint said that if they wait for studios to send them official photos, they ‘might as well be Entertainment Weekly.com.’ Setting aside any ethical arguments that arise from that (which I don’t care about at the moment), why is that the only choice? Why is that web sites can’t run covert or spy material that is accurate? Why are the two options ‘Completely unreliable’ and ‘Studio whore’? It seems to me that we can be out there raking some muck, raising a little hell, getting the scoops, but doing it with accuracy and accountability.
I just want to add here at the end that this isn’t an attempt to call anyone out or start a feud. What I would like to do is continue a dialogue about our little community and our place in the worlds of journalism and entertainment.