By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Little red faces

Jonathan Saltzman reports in today’s Boston Globe that the story about the kid who ended up on a government watch list for going to the library and asking for a copy of “The Communist Manifesto” — er, make that Mao’s “Little Red Book” — was a hoax.

Earlier this week, the story made its way into a Globe op-ed submitted by Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office. (I’m not letting the senator himself off the hook — after all, he let it go out with his name on it. I’m simply acknowledging the fact that he had only slightly more to do with that piece than you or I did.) Saltzman writes:

Laura Capps, a Kennedy spokeswoman, said last night that the senator cited “public reports” in his opinion piece. Even if the assertion was a hoax, she said, it did not detract from Kennedy’s broader point that the Bush administration has gone too far in engaging in surveillance.

Accurate but not true, in other words — a fine standard for the Globe op-ed page.

Needless to say, when a newspaper chooses to publish an op-ed piece by an outside contributor, its editors have an obligation to edit and fact-check that piece just as rigorously as they would if it were written by a staff writer — maybe more so.

I don’t think the Globe did anything particularly wrong in publishing Kennedy’s op-ed as it was written. After all, the “Little Red Book” story had been broken the previous Saturday by a well-regarded newspaper, the New Bedford Standard-Times.

But by Thursday, when Kennedy’s piece appeared in the Globe, the story was already the subject of widespread speculation that it was a hoax, an urban legend or both. Ideally, someone at the Globe should have flagged it before publication.

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  1. Bill Baar

    There is a good reason why Orwell’s collected works are hosted at a Russian site in both English and Russian. They’ve had first hand experience with a political culture that values “objective” truth over plain old truth. It’s not reality that matters, but the objective truth inside the story, even if the story plain false.And that’s sadly where Kennedy is dragging his party and tattered liberalism.

  2. Rick in Duxbury

    My personal favorite is Prof. Williams of UMass Dartmouth complaining: “I feel as if I was lied to”. Ya think? Obviously a keen judge of character and verisimilitude, it never dawned on the “Islamic Scholar” that “Progressives” often preachto each other just like “Dittoheads” and he wanted this one to be true just a bit too much.

  3. Bill Baar

    Here’s the link by the way to the Russian fellow’s Orwell site. Go down to the library part and you can get lots of Orwell’s writing online here.Thanks Dan for following this story.

  4. Clyde Grubbs

    Why would anyone believe this story? Especially with its silly “little red book” attention getter…Could it be because this is the way the FBI has acted toward US citizens since 1919? J. Edgar Hoover established the culture of intimidation and checking up on political dissent in this country. The spying on Martin Luther King, Jr. was simply the tip of the iceberg…This story was believed not because liberals are gulliable, but because such conduct is “not out of character” for the FBI.If the FBI wishes that people would not jump to conclusions that they are violating civil liberties, they must confess that their reputation is well deserved, and that their reputation was based on their own stupid and unamerican policy culture, and that they are now reformed, and to prove it they are opening their files to public scrutiny. Otherwise wise people who learn from history will assume that they who have abused civil liberities in the past are abusing it now.

  5. Bill Baar

    The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee believed it and cited it as the only example they could find in The Problem in American Democracy.The problem is UUSC needs to tell their blog readers the story is a hoax, next they need to say if they bothered to call anyone at Justice, Homeland Security, or the FBI and ask if the story were true, before they went ahead and posted this blanket problem statement about America.Our assumptions and preconceptions are always problems. Our willingness to believe things because we want to believe are always obstacles. That’s exactly why UUSC really owes us UU’s an explaination of the background to their posting on this story. We need to know how much effort they put into getting the facts straight. As an organization with a serious mission they need to have tools to get facts straight.The UUSC could have just picked up the phone and called the agencies for statements. (Kennedy’s office obviously a poor choice to call to expedite those calls, becaue he clearly wanted to believe something too). Maybe the did but their post doesn’t reflect it. Not even a no comment or anything from the government.People committed to Human Rights ought have a lot of contact with the PR people at the agencies who enforce laws in this country. Located in Wash that’s what UUSC is all about and the fact they let themselves get hoodwindked by this story very bad comment on our Church.The owe the Church and our country much here.

  6. Clyde Grubbs

    The Service Committee is a membership organization of people who support its projects. UUs are congregationalists, and each congregation is a church complete in itself. We have an Association to which we have given powers to act on non ecclessiastical matters. But it is not in any sense a Church. An the service committee is indendent of the church.Since the FBI has lied to the American people, the idea of calling the FBI to collaborate a story is ludicious. We owe to our faith community and to our country to discount whatever that agency says until it has reconciled itself with its past. As for the UUSC blog doing error checking, they like all blogs have picked up bad stories..they are not while and remaining steadfast in their position that civil liberties are engangered.

  7. Chuck T.

    Two things bother me about this story. First, because it was a hoax it’s the kind of thing the right can use to justify the Patriot Act. They’ll go out there and say “wow, the left is making things up just to prove that this thing is lousy law.”It is lousy law, a hoax hurts the overall argument.The second thing is the complete disregard for the facts by both the Kennedy office and the Globe. Even if you accepted the original story at face value, a simple Google search or a most, a few phone calls, would have corrected the Communist Manifesto/Little Red Book confusion. But the Globe, upon seeing that obvious error (Marx, not Mao wrote the Manifesto), never threw up a red flag during the editing process.Why?

  8. Anonymous

    “This story was believed not because liberals are gulliable, but because such conduct is “not out of character” for the FBI.”Riiiiight. When the FBI files of Republicans were illegally turned over to the Clinton administration, actually, when the revelations of that scandal first broke, the first thing I heard out of liberals mouths, so quickly they wanted to dismiss this scandal as a Republican myth, were something along the lines of “The FBI would NEVER do such a thing. The FBI would never allow anyone to get their hands on FBI files illegally.” So why did liberals buy into this Mao book story? Because liberals ARE gullible when it comes to phony stories that make the Bush administration look bad.

  9. Anonymous

    “So why did liberals buy into this Mao book story? Because liberals ARE gullible when it comes to phony stories that make the Bush administration look bad.”Typical of the liberals to blame the FBI for falling for this brand new anti-Bush hoax. It sure beats taking responsibility. Author (“Dear Mr. President”) Gabe Hudson put out a story that he got a very negative review from Bush himself. Liberals believed it. Hudson later admitted he lied. An IQ report from the Lovenstein Institute gets circulated on the internet showing Bush to have a near retarded level of IQ. Only there isn o Lovenstein institute. Everytime another hoax emerges that makes Bush look bad, or evil, or stupid, there is no end to the liberals who willingly swallow the stories whole. And its always someone else fault for their gullibility.

  10. Bill Baar

    Noemie Emery on the Genius of Karl RoveAnd then Karl Rove topped it all by getting Democrats to go round the bend on impeachment, such as Barbara Boxer on the advice of John Dean. The Times, our own little France in the heart of Manhattan, doubtless thought it was dealing a mortal blow to the Nixon redux in the White House, that monstrous figure devouring liberties. Instead, it gave both parties the chance to redefine themselves in ways that do not seem to favor its allies. We think that on a Wednesday morning November 8, 2006, Republicans will give a big “thanks” to the Paper of Wreckage. And nobody more than Karl Rove.

  11. Steve

    Why is it that the hoaxes of the right persist even to this day? Things like “Al Gore said he invented the internet” and “returning Vietnam veterans were spit on by protesters”. Both of those are now hoary standbys of the right – both patently fake – yet they persist no matter how many times they’re debunked.

  12. Anonymous

    Dan, I’m surprised that you, a media critic, turn your laser on Kennedy, who just repeated what he’d read in the paper, and not on the Standard-Times, which ran the story without any comment from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, or even the university library, which must have known that the kid had never checked the book out. If the paper had contacted any one of these, the story would have started to unravel, but the paper preferred an attention-grabbing story.

  13. Dan Kennedy

    Hey, Anonymous 10:46 — Kind of startling that you could blow right past what I wrote about the Globe’s obligation in the very post that you’re criticizing.

  14. Anonymous

    Dan,The Globe’s obligation? Don’t you want to say anything about the Standard-Times’ obligation, since they’re the ones who stated as outright, no-need-for-attribution fact that this event had taken place? Kind of odd you blow past that one, isn’t it?

  15. neil

    The original article from the Standard-Times (m’gath’s link) is a sloppy piece of reporting. The reporter knows the student’s name but, in a curious turn of phrase, “He has not spoken to The Standard-Times.” As if the reporter is waiting for the student to contact him! That is backwards. Did you, the reporter, try to talk to the student? Did he refuse?The upshot is that the reporter does not verify the second-hand (or is it third-hand?) information (professors tell me that a student told them…). It is thus simply hearsay, which he should not print. Reporters are supposed to verify their material. Don’t they learn this in reporter school?Further, the 12/24 “hoax revealed” article (see Dan’s link) by the same reporter is little better. He lapses into “mistakes were made” mode to obfuscate his own failure to verify his story–“the story’s release came at a perfect storm in the news cycle”, and “there was an increasing sense among some Americans that the US govt was overstepping its bounds…”. And so, “As a reporter, I was swept up in this storm. I take responsibility, and apologize for my carelessness in reprinting such a story without making any effort to verify it first.”Oops, that’s not in there–but it should be.Note too the irony in the original article–one of the professors tells the reporter, “I tell my students to go to the direct source” as the reason to look up Mao’s little red book. The reporter would have done well to follow this advice. I’ll have to take Dan’s word for it that this paper is “well regarded”. I’m not impressed.None of this lets the Globe or Kennedy off the hook, but I agree with anonymous 3:11 that the primary responsibility for this blatant failure of fact-checking ought to rest on the reporter who broke the “story”.

  16. Bill Baar

    Is it too cycnical to think this not a hoax, but a plot? To give Sen Kennedy gist for an editorial?We bloggers in Illinois are finding politicians using anonymous blog postings now to comment and say some rough stuff on blogs.We’ve had IP addresses traced to the Governors office and to the offices of the DCCC (acroynm for Cong Rahm Emmanual’s shop) where anon postings slamming Democratic candidate in Illinois 6th district in favor of another Democrat, War Hero Tammy Duckworth.So coming form Illinois, I find it hard to believe this all happenstance.I find it easier to believe the press are cynical and manipulative, then stupid. But maybe I’m wrong

  17. Anonymous

    Thanks, Neil. The other weird thing about the Standard-Times “correction” (never labelled as such), was this sentence: “Had the student stuck to his original story, it might never have been proved false.” That’s just simply untrue. The student’s story unraveled when his professor started doing what the reporter was supposed to have done – ask questions, search for how it could be that two Homeland Security agents could show up at the student’s door. Once someone started asking questions, the story fell apart.

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