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WEB SCOUT / DAVID SARNO

A falsehood goes from blog to the top of Digg

October 03, 2008|DAVID SARNO

WEDNESDAY on Digg.com, a high-traffic "social news" site where users vote for their favorite stories from across the Web, the most popular story was headlined "Katie Couric and CBS News Censor Embarrassing Palin Tape." The story, from a liberal political blog called "Blue Tidal Wave," claimed that CBS News was withholding footage of a gaffe by Gov. Sarah Palin in order to secure future interviews from the McCain campaign.

Digg gets 16,000 story submissions every day, so earning enough votes to hit the top 10 is a major coup. Being elected the day's top story can mean a windfall of hundreds of thousands of readers.

In this case, what all those readers got was a big plate of horse pucky. The post, by "The Saint," began by quoting from a story by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. Even after a week of widely mocked footage from the Palin-Couric interviews, Kurtz wrote, "the worst may be yet to come for Palin; sources say CBS has two more responses on tape that will likely prove embarrassing."

The Saint took Kurtz's revelation and twisted it into an accusation of censorship, complete with its own journalistic-sounding statement: "CBS Evening News insiders say the censoring of the Palin interview was orchestrated by CBS News heads and Couric in an effort to show the McCain campaign that they should choose the struggling nightly news program for their exclusive interviews."

I reached the Saint by e-mail, and he admitted that the "CBS Evening News insiders" he was referring to was "a friend" at CBS whom he'd spoken to "off hand" and "never had permission to source." The friend "didn't know if CBS would air all of the interview," the Saint wrote, "and I concluded that they might be holding back the footage."

The truth is that CBS News had shot the material in question Sept. 24 -- when Palin was in New York -- as part of its separate "Questions" series. That feature has Couric asking multiple candidates identical questions. The "Vice Presidential Questions" segment -- which included a matching interview with Sen. Joe Biden -- had been scheduled to air this week all along.

In fact, a "Questions" segment in which Couric asked the candidates about Roe vs. Wade aired Wednesday night, while "Blue Tidal Wave's" post claiming CBS was censoring that very footage was still in Digg's top 10.

On the Internet, faulty information seems to follow the path of least resistance. It gets passed on by the people who are most eager to believe it, and therefore least likely to find out if it's actually true. On Digg, a site that tends to elevate left-leaning stories, the "CBS censorship" canard found a willing audience.

"The notion that CBS was 'censoring' this information is, of course, absurd," Kurtz wrote to me. "In today's digital universe, some of the more hyperpartisan or hyperventilating practitioners take a fact, add dashes or supposition or conspiracy theory, and cook up a half-baked stew."

And if there's one thing you learn from reporting on the Web, it's to be careful what you swallow.

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MoveOn's liberal use of 'lie'

Facebook users, you too should be wary when you're presented with a bill of goods on the social networking site. A recent series of small advertisements pointed to media outlets catching Palin or McCain lying. "Jake Tapper: Palin lied," says one ad that links to a column by the ABC correspondent. "AP: Palin lied again," says a second. One even got YouTube, which is not a news organization, in on the action: "YouTube says: McCain lied," it read. "Amazing."

The thumbnail-size advertisements carry no indication of who paid for them, and they closely resemble the paid Web ads news organizations often buy to boost their own stories. Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal got curious, and asked the liberal action group MoveOn.org if it was behind the campaign. It was.

But the spots continued as of Thursday, sans disclaimer. MoveOn has invoked a strange campaign law loophole that it says makes its ads "totally legal" by exempting the following class of items from the need to include a disclaimer:

(i) Bumper stickers, pins, buttons, pens, and similar small items upon which the disclaimer cannot be conveniently printed;

Since Facebook ads can accommodate only 140 characters, MoveOn feels justified.

It would be one thing if MoveOn was using the political ads to point to its own content. But the "lie" ads are linking directly to third-party news stories, giving no hint that there's an invisible middleman. That middleman has a relatively low standard for labeling something a "lie." Read Tapper's piece and you might wonder if Tapper would say he'd called Palin a liar, or if he'd say he was pointing out the candidate's inconsistencies on global warming. Point being, try to put that particular word in any reporter's mouth and you're likely to get a finger bitten off.

--

david.sarno@latimes.com

For these and other items on Web entertainment and connected culture, go to the Web Scout blog, latimes.com/webscout.

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