A militia seized an unoccupied federal outpost deep in Oregon this weekend. The story surrounding the Hammond family’s incarceration, which precipitated the seizure, had been brewing for months and a large rally in support of the family was held this weekend. A group of protesters took over a federal building as a political statement against government overreach. (For some helpful background on the local situation, read here. For information on the particulars of how mandatory minimums in sentencing played a role, read this.)
The national media, previously disinterested in the story, began covering it, in the manner best described by this genius tweet:
— sean (@SeanMcElwee) January 4, 2016
In an indirectly related blog post over at The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs had some wise words on how social media demands that you weigh in on controversies prior to understanding them:
[G]oing off half-cocked is now widely perceived as a virtue, and the disinclination to do so as a vice. Moreover, that poorly informed and probably inflammatory statement of Your Incontrovertibly Correct Position must be on the internet — and according to my first protestor either directly on or accessible to Twitter — or it doesn’t count towards your treasury of merit.
A particularly dark example of this need to weigh in half-cocked was sadly provided by Jonathan Chait here.
Which brings us to the need to check claims a bit better before running them on huge news sites. This morning, BuzzFeed editors began spreading a hot story on social media. Here’s how editor Ben Smith alerted his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers to the story:
The dramatic headline to the linked story was about the father of the man leading the militia in Oregon and said, “Cliven Bundy Claims Obama Threatened Donald Trump In Bizarre Hand-Written Lawsuit: The Nevada rancher claimed in a federal lawsuit that Obama threatened Trump to get the businessman to stop questioning whether the president was born in the United States.” The opening paragraph (lede) for the story was, “Cliven Bundy — the father of Ammon Bundy, who led a militia that took over an Oregon federal building — filed a bizarre hand-written lawsuit against President Obama in 2014, alleging the president threatened Donald Trump.”
Except that while someone did file a “bizarre hand-written lawsuit,” it was not Bundy. In fact, a prisoner named David Rothrock filed a lawsuit that was so bizarre that it should have made any reporter look into the merits of the lawsuit, including the claim to have been filed on behalf of Bundy. I mean, anyone can claim to file a lawsuit on behalf of anyone else, without that person’s knowledge. And anyone can file a lawsuit alleging all sorts of crazy things. The same prisoner has previously filed lawsuits with unlikely claims, Gabriel Malor noticed. Thankfully the sports media is a bit more incredulous and skeptical of such pro se lawsuits than BuzzFeed showed itself to be in this case.
Gabriel Malor immediately noticed the problem with the media messaging (pardon the French):
Incarcerated crazy dude includes Cliven Bundy's name on frivolous lawsuit, gullible media eats that shit up. https://t.co/FsEuKKv9A7
— Gabriel Malor (@gabrielmalor) January 4, 2016
BuzzFeed began the process of correcting the story, a process taking some effort, given the flaws with the original story. Here are some of the versions showing how the story has changed:
1) The original version.
Perhaps the lesson here for reporters is to work less on pushing silly and salacious news or false stories and a bit more on providing background and substance to complicated stories about federal land use, family economics, and self-government.