If You Want Reporters to Check Stories Before They Publish, You’re a Hater

Instead of doing something productive, like finishing chapter two of my book (it’s going well anyway!), I spent about an hour today noticing how the Internet had fallen for yet another hoax. Elan Gale, a producer for “The Bachelor” and thereby one of the worst people on the planet, spent part of Thanksgiving live-tweeting what he said was a feud with an irritating woman “in mom jeans” who complained too loudly about her flight delay. Gale sent her drinks and notes telling her to shut her mouth and “eat a dick.” The Internet loved it, especially Buzzfeed, whose Rachel Zarrell aggregated Gale’s tweets and photos. Her post, on one of the year’s slowest news cycles, got nearly 1.4 million reads.

One problem: Gale’s story was bullshit. Maybe people should have sussed that out, as he took many photos but none of his “target.” But they didn’t. Zarrell got to write a follow-up aggregating more Gale tweets about how he punked everyone. I got irritated, not really at Buzzfeed but at Gale — again, “Bachelor” producer. This guy, for a living, comes up with ideas that stimulate the pleasure or anger centers of the lumpen proletariat’s brains. He did it on Twitter and captivated the Internet with complete bullshit. I ribbed Buzzfeed about this (after all, the phony story was worth 1 percent of their record November traffic) and, after a friendly back-and-forth, Politics editor McKay Coppins snarked me off.

McKay and I are friends IRL, and I wish our every Twitter interaction did not devolve into dick-swingery, but come on — fuck this. Elan Gale successfully hoaxed the Internet with a dumb, mean story. Buzzfeed fell for the hoax, with Zarrell tweeting at Gale to ask for an interview but never confirming anything about the flight. Any news organization should consider this a screw-up.

It’s not quite Lara Logan nodding like a parrot as her Benghazi source lies to her, but it’s the sort of shoddy reporting that would get a reporter at a small newspaper fired. Imagine you worked at the Pleasantville News-Leader and you ran an A-1 story about a fight that never happened. It goes viral; it gets debunked.You think you’re able to just walk away from that by mocking the haters?

Oh, I’m not saying Buzzfeed should fire anyone. They ran an update at the bottom of the post. I did ask the reporter, Zarrell, how this came about, but I’m not going to make some federal case out of this. Gale wasn’t grubbing for money or anything. As hoaxes go, this was mostly harmless.

But I remain fairly disturbed by the glib response. What is aggregation FOR, anyway? And are people willing to create a lower standard for “reporting” — Zarrell is a reporter, who has worked for other news organizations — if it’s only about a viral story? Earlier this year, the Washington Post fired an overworked aggregator-reporter after she botched some facts. The Washington Post’s aggregation style is fairly unpopular — the paper wants to have SOME version of stories on its own site, so readers stay there instead of Yahoo! or Politico. But none of its aggregated tales go as mega-viral as “This Epic Note-Passing War on a Delayed Flight Wins Thanksgiving.” And Zarrell’s story WOULDN’T have gone viral if she’d decided that Gale’s story was too flimsy. She wouldn’t have gotten 1.3 million hits. She would be, today, a less valuable employee to Buzzfeed.

This is fairly fucked. Yes, people on the Internet want to believe salacious stories. Reporters want to publish stories that people read. If there’s a great reward, and little downside, to be had in publishing bullshit, the Internet’s going to get more bullshit. As one of my colleagues put it, “‘Too good to check’ used to be a warning to newspaper editors not to jump on bullshit stories. Now it’s a business model.”