LAX shooting (again) highlights the need for a slow-news approach

This week’s most visible journalism error belongs to NBC News, which reported the death of the Los Angeles airport shooter and then had to take it back. “JUST IN: LAX gunman killed by law enforcement” – posted on Twitter at 11:15 am Pacific Time – gave way to “Correction: LAX gunman NOT killed by law enforcement. Gunman is in custody.” two and a half hours later.

A number of words come to mind to describe this process, but the one I’d use first is: stupid. The second: inevitable.

NBC’s error is notable mainly because it’s not notable. It was hardly the only major media operator to tell the world a falsehood. Sad to say,  our twitchy new world – where people constantly shoot before they aim – is the new normal. Nothing seems likely to lead media companies, much less social media users, to post what they can prove or know beyond a serious doubt, as opposed to what they have merely heard.

So NBC wasn’t the only journalism organization to get it wrong. Among a number of others that couldn’t wait for confirmation, the Los Angeles Times announced, “BREAKING: Sources tell @latimes that LAX shooter was a TSA employee. He was shot dead after killing fellow worker. Post coming.” The retraction came, as with NBC, more than two hours later.

I’ve been hoping that media organizations would exercise more judgment than zeal in situations like this. But hope gives way to reality – the quest for clicks, page views and viewers is plainly more important than being right.

So I return to my advice for the rest of us: Take what I call a “slow news” approach to breaking or surprising news. My rule of thumb is simple when it comes to the former: The closer we are (in time) to a major event, the more likely that reports about it will be wrong. Believe nothing until there’s better evidence than unnamed “sources” or the other speculation that passes for journalism even from our supposedly finest organizations.

Here’s an excerpt from the book that addresses slow news:

On Nov. 5, 2009, in the minutes and hours after an Army officer opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, the media floodgates opened in the now-standard way. A torrent of news reports and commentary poured from the scene, the immediate community and the Pentagon, amplified by corollary data, informed commentary and rank speculation from journalists, bloggers, podcasters, Tweeters, texters and more.

Also standard in this age of fast news was the quality of the early information: utterly unreliable and mostly wrong. The shooter was dead; no he wasn’t. There were two accomplices; no there weren’t. And so on.

Several critics tore into a soldier who was using Twitter, a service noted for rumors, to post about what she was seeing. Indeed, some of what the soldier posted turned out to be wrong. But was it fair to extrapolate this to brand all forms of citizen media as untrustworthy and voyeuristic?

There was plenty of wrong information going around that day, at all levels of media. Lots of people quoted President Obama’s admonition to wait for the facts, but almost no one followed it. And almost no one heeded Army Gen. George William Casey Jr.’s advice the following Sunday not to jump to conclusions “based on little snippets of information that come out.”

Greg Marx at the Columbia Journalism Review was among several commentators to catalog some of the misinformation that raced around. He wrote:

It’s not fair to lay too much of this confusion at the feet of [traditional media] reporters, who are mostly diligent and conscientious, who are basing their claims in good faith on what they are hearing from their sources, and who are under tremendous competitive pressure to get the story first. But on a story like this, tendencies toward error, exaggeration, and inconsistency are built into the system, at least in the first days of reporting. In due time, a clearer picture will begin to emerge; in this case, we’ll even hear from the shooter himself.

There will be plenty of time for analysis. Until then, let’s all take a deep breath.

Like many other people who’ve been burned by believing too quickly, I’ve learned to put almost all of what journalists call “breaking news” into the category of gossip or, in the words of a scientist friend, “interesting if true.” That is, even though I gobble up “the latest” from a variety of sources, the sooner after the actual event the information appears, the more I assume it’s unreliable, if not false.

Still, I’m no different from everyone else in a key respect: When it comes to important (or sometimes trivial but interesting) breaking news, I, too, can react in almost Pavlovian ways from time to time, clicking the Refresh button on the browser again and again. I don’t tend to immediately email my friends and family or tweet about unconfirmed reports, though, and if I do pass along interesting tidbits I always make it a point to add “if true” to the might-be-news.

What is it about breaking news that causes us to turn off our logical brains? Why do we turn on the TV or click-click-click Refresh or scan the Twitter feeds to get the very latest details—especially when we learn, again and again, that the early news is so frequently wrong?

Ethan Zuckerman, a friend and colleague at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has some ideas:

  • The media make us do it. [As noted below, I give a lot of credence to this one.]
  • We’re bored.
  • Knowing the latest, even if it’s wrong, helps build social capital in conversations.
  • We’re junkies for narrative, and we always hope that we’ll get the fabled “rest of the story” by clicking one more time.

“I suspect there’s some truth to each of those explanations, and I suspect that each is badly incomplete,” Ethan says. “I also suspect that figuring out what drives our patterns of news consumption, and our susceptibility to fast, often-wrong news is critical” for having a sounder grasp of what we can trust.

Remember: Big breaking stories are literally exciting. They’re often about death or the threat of death, or they otherwise create anxiety. Neurological research shows that the more of your personal bandwidth anxiety takes up, the less clearly you think. To get even more neurological: The amygdala takes over from the prefrontal cortex.

Slowing the News

A wonderful trend has emerged in the culinary world, called the “slow food movement”—a rebellion against fast food and all the ecological and nutritional damage it causes.

As Ethan suggested to me at a Berkman Center retreat in late 2009, we need a “slow news” equivalent. Slow news is all about taking a deep breath.

One of society’s recently adopted clichés is the “24-hour news cycle”—a recognition that, for people who consume and create news via digital systems, the newspaper-a-day version of journalism has passed into history. Now, it’s said, we get news every hour of every day, and media creators work tirelessly to fill those hours with new stuff. (Happily, a few newspapers and magazines do continue to provide actual perspective and nuance.)

That 24-hour news cycle itself needs further adjustment, though. Even an hourly news cycle is too long; in an era of live-TV police chases, Twitter and twitchy audiences, the latest can come at any minute. Call it the 1,440-minute news cycle.

Rapid-fire news is about speed, and being speedy serves two main purposes for the provider. The first is gratification of the desire to be first. Humans are competitive, and in journalism newsrooms, scoops are a coin of the realm.

The second imperative is attracting an audience. Being first draws a crowd, and crowds can be turned into influence, money, or both. Witness cable news channels’ desperate hunt for “the latest” when big events are under way, even though the latest is so often the rankest garbage.

The urge to be first applies not just to those disseminating the raw information (which, remember, is often wrong) that’s the basis for breaking news. It’s also the case, for example, for the blogger who offers up the first sensible-sounding commentary that puts the “news” into perspective. The winners in the online commentary derby—which is just as competitive, though played for lower financial stakes—are the quick and deft writers who tell us what it all means. That they’re often basing their perspectives on falsehoods and inaccuracies seems to matter less than that they’re early to comment.

I’m not battling human nature. We all want to know what’s going on, and the bigger the calamity is, the more we want to know—especially if it may affect us directly (if a hurricane is approaching, the latest news is not just interesting but potentially life-saving). Nothing is going to change that, and nothing should.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. Speculation has passed for journalism in all media eras. Every commercial plane crash, for example, is followed by days of brazen hypothesizing by so-called experts, but now we are fed their ideas at hourly (or briefer) intervals, rather than only on the evening news or in the daily paper—and even that frequency was too much. Only months of actual investigation by the real experts—and sometimes not even that—will reveal the real truth, but we are nevertheless subjected to endless new theories and rehashings of the “facts.”

The New News Cycle

The advent of the 1,440-minute news cycle (or should we call it the 86,400-second news cycle?), which has fed our apparently insatiable appetite for something new to talk about, should literally give us pause. Again and again, we’ve seen that initial assumptions can be grossly untrustworthy.

Consider, for example, the Fort Hood shootings. We learned that the perpetrator wasn’t killed during his rampage, contrary to what was initially reported. And that fact stayed with us because the story was still fresh enough, and the saturation coverage was ongoing, when reports emerged that he hadn’t been shot dead by law enforcement.

However, we all also “know” false things that were inaccurately reported and then later disproved, in part because journalists typically don’t report final outcomes with the same passion and prominence that they report the initial news. We’ve all seen videos of dramatic arrests of people who were later acquitted, but still had their reputations shattered thanks to the inherent bias in crime reporting. And how many of us have heard a report that such-and-such product or behavior has been found to raise the risk of cancer, but never heard the follow-up that said the initial report was either inaccurate or misleading?

The abundance of wrong information in the rapid-fire news system has other causes than simple speed, including the decline of what’s supposed to be a staple of journalism: fact checking before running with a story.

As Clay Shirky (who contributed this book’s foreword) has observed—in a Twitter tweet, no less—“fact-checking is way down, and after-the-fact checking is way WAY up.”

Clay’s point lends weight to the argument for slow news; to the idea that we all might be wise to think before we react. That is what many of us failed to do during the early hours and days of the “#amazonfail” event of April 2009. As Clay described it afterwards:

After an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) themes lost their Amazon sales rank, and therefore their visibility in certain Amazon list and search functions, we participated in a public campaign, largely coordinated via the Twitter keyword #amazonfail (a form of labeling called a hashtag) because of a perceived injustice at the hands of that company, an injustice that didn’t actually occur.

Like Clay, I came to believe that Amazon hadn’t deliberately made a political decision to reduce the visibility of these books; it was, the company said (as part of an inept PR handling of the situation), a programming error. But I was one of the people who flamed Amazon (in which I own a small amount of stock) before I knew the full story. I hope I learned a lesson.

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This suggests not just being skeptical—the first of the principles I hope you’ll embrace—but also waiting for persuasive evidence before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: As news accelerates faster and faster, you should be slower to believe what you hear, and you should look harder for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation. Wikipedia, that sometimes maligned mega-encyclopedia, can be a terrific place to start; more on that in the next chapter.

Can we persuade ourselves to take a deep breath, slow down and dig deeper as a normal part of our media use, and to deploy the other principles of media consumption to figure out what we can trust and what we can’t? We can. And if we want to have any reason to trust what we read (hear, etc.), we’d better.

What a 21st Century News Ombudsman Should Do: Aggregate, Curate, Debate

It’s time to change the role of the news ombudsman. Two new posts/columns from the people who are best known in this job today prove it.

The most recent was a head-scratching query from the New York Times’ Public Editor (aka ombudsman), Art Brisbane — asking whether the Times should be telling its readers when sources don’t tell the truth. Brisbane, a friend, has taken a lot of heat for this, and I’m one of the people who’s disappointed that he would even ask this question. (He later said people misinterpreted what he was asking — and he’s not totally unreasonable about this — but from my perspective he invited the misinterpretation. Sorry, Art…)

His post followed by days an even odder piece from the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, who wondered if the organization was innovating too rapidly. Answer: Of course not; one of the Post’s biggest problems is that it’s not innovating fast enough.

These pieces highlighted how strange the ombudsman’s job has become, and why I think it needs to be updated in this networked age. Here’s how I’d change it, and I hope both of these men will consider at least adding some of these ideas to their portfolio. There would be two main approaches: aggregation and conversation.

The best media criticism of every news organization is being done outside its walls. I would stop writing my own critiques, and then:

  • Make it a core part of my role to aggregate every responsible critique of the organization’s work that I could find;
  • Call bullshit when the critics are wrong; and thank them when they are right;
  • Encourage the best critics cross-post on my page.
  • Strongly encourage newsroom staff to participate in these debates. UPDATE: Brisbane got a reply from the Times’ editor, Jill Abramson, and replied to that; good to see…
  • Ask readers to flag mistakes of fact and analysis, and put the corrections (easier with facts) into a database with or without the cooperation of the newsroom
  • Create a robust, open forum about the organization’s work.

In other words, I’d stop trying to be the go-between and overseer of what matters in the effort to bring media criticism inside the organization. It’s obvious — look at how the NY Times buries Brisbane’s work on its website; you can barely find it without a search — that the editorial staffers wish ombudsmen would just go away.

They have a great role to play, in fact. But they should use the ample resources of the blogosphere, coverage by other news orgs (which occasionally, though not nearly often enough), and social media to bring attention to the paper or whatever kind of organization they are.

To have someone in this role implies a news organization that isn’t afraid of its own shadow — where people welcome criticism rather than dreading it. I hope some forward-looking editor/publisher does this. John Paton comes to mind.

Political Columnist: Please Look in the Mirror

The New York Times’ Gail Collins offers some sound advice in her column about the latest presidential campaign: “Ignore Iowa.” She writes:

Perhaps this would be a good time to point out that the Iowa caucuses are really ridiculous.

I tend to agree with Collins’ general point. The caucuses are unrepresentative, quirky and even idiotic. What disappoints me about her column, however, is the utter lack of self-awareness it demonstrates.

On the Times’ Politics web page, an aggregation of articles from the past several days (but mostly current stories), you will find no fewer than seven pieces from Iowa. See where I’m going? Of course you do: Collins is dissing the event that her own newspaper has helped make such a national production.

The column Collins could have written would have made all of the good points of the original. It then would have gone one step further: to urge her bosses and colleagues to stop being among the chief promoters of the absurdity.

Arizona shootings: Take a slow-news approach

UPDATE Jan. 22, 2012

(Much of this article was originally published on on January 8, 2011, and that article was modified from this section in Mediactive.).

Joe Paterno died. No, he didn’t. (Ultimately, yes he did.)

The false reports of his death are yet another case of shoot-first, aim-later journalism. It’s not a new phenomenon in the Digital Age, but the way news moves now makes it a more significant problem.

We need to wait for facts in fast-breaking news events; jumping to conclusions doesn’t help.

Think back just a year, to the memorable events in Tuscon, Arizona.

NPR Mistakenly Reports Giffords KilledLike so many other people today, I’ve been following the news about horrific events in Tucson, Ariz., where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, is one of a number of shooting victims. As I write this, it’s not known how many have died. And as I write this, news reports say that Giffords is in surgery, in critical condition.

The reports from traditional news organizations, amplified by Twitter, blogs and other Internet media, have been a parade of unclear information — just what we’ve come to expect in such situations. CNN’s headline now reads “Congresswoman Giffords shot” — with a sub-headline saying, “There are conflicting reports on whether she has died.” No kidding: One of those conflicting reports was CNN’s own report, citing an unnamed sources, that Giffords had died. (UPDATE: See Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman’s exhaustive compilation of Big Media misstatements, from which I grabbed the above screenshot of NPR’s mis-reporting of Giffords’ condition.)

Continue reading Arizona shootings: Take a slow-news approach

Politicians lie: We know it and we don’t care

This article was originally published on on December 17, 2010.

Survey: The public gets that most political ads are bogus, but people still believe things that are false

A new study about media misinformation and media users’ ignorance is only the latest wakeup call for anyone who worries that the American press has gone badly astray. From the summary of “Misinformation and the 2010 Election” comes this bottom line:

  • The public is thoroughly cynical about political campaign advertising.
  • Much of the public is misinformed about major issues.
  • Fox News viewers are especially prone to believing things that are not true.

The report, from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to national affairs and the media. We have an information crisis. Influence peddlers and opinion launderers can now spend unlimited amounts of money, much of it raised from anonymous sources, to push political issues and candidates. A system that has absolutely no accountability is almost guaranteed to become a sewer, and this one certainly has.

Continue reading Politicians lie: We know it and we don’t care

Some journalists stand up for WikiLeaks

This article was originally published on on December 13, 2010.

Unfortunately, they’re not American journalists

It’s heartening to see some journalists standing up for principle in the WikiLeaks affair. A case in point is this letter to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It begins:

The leaking of 250,000 confidential American diplomatic cables is the most astonishing leak of official information in recent history, and its full implications are yet to emerge. But some things are clear. In essence, WikiLeaks, an organisation that aims to expose official secrets, is doing what the media have always done: bringing to light material that governments would prefer to keep secret.

In this case, WikiLeaks, founded by Australian Julian Assange, worked with five major newspapers around the world, which published and analysed the embassy cables. Diplomatic correspondence relating to Australia has begun to be published here.

The volume of the leaks is unprecedented, yet the leaking and publication of diplomatic correspondence is not new. We, as editors and news directors of major media organisations, believe the reaction of the US and Australian governments to date has been deeply troubling. We will strongly resist any attempts to make the publication of these or similar documents illegal. Any such action would impact not only on WikiLeaks, but every media organisation in the world that aims to inform the public about decisions made on their behalf. WikiLeaks, just four years old, is part of the media and deserves our support.

Continue reading Some journalists stand up for WikiLeaks

Progressive bloggers whiff on Obama interview

This article was originally published on Salon on October 29, 2010.

When the White House invited some progressive bloggers to interview President Obama this week, a few days before the elections, the motive was surely to toss a bone to what Howard Dean once called the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” I’m sure the administration is delighted with the way the event turned out, because while the bloggers pushed the president (here’s a transcript) a teeny bit on a few hot-button issues, they didn’t come close to confronting him on the broken promises that in the end will mean the most.

I’m talking about civil liberties, where Obama’s record is as bad in most ways as his predecessor’s. In case after case, as Glenn Greenwald and a few others have painstakingly documented, this administration has claimed unprecedented presidential powers, including the right to order the assassination of U.S. citizens with no due process. Meanwhile, Obama has continued and even extended the Bush-era cult of secrecy in key ways.

Only on gays in the military and same-sex marriage did the progressive bloggers push the president in this area. I’d expected more. True, the session wasn’t all that long, but there’s nothing more fundamental to our future than basic liberties, without which there is no republic.

I also expected more from Jon Stewart, who went AWOL on civil liberties when he interviewed Obama this week on “The Daily Show.” In June, Stewart eviscerated the president’s record in an eight-minute tirade. This week, nada. The fact is that Stewart was more ferocious on an ongoing basis when Bush was shredding the Constitution.

I’ve long since given up on congressional Democrats, whose standard spinelessness has grown even more pronounced during this administration. Remember when Patrick Leahy, the Vermont senator, made fierce pronouncements on how badly Bush was wounding our liberties? He’s become Obama’s puppy dog.

And the Washington press corps, so addicted to being close to power and passionate about trivialities? The question answers itself.

But if so-called progressives won’t push Obama to justify his beyond-abysmal record on civil liberties, who will?

Hewlett Packard keeps digging its hole

This article was originally published on Salon on August 16, 2010.

HP has a lot more questions to answer about CEO Mark Hurd’s mysterious departure

I have no idea whether the Wall Street Journal’s lurid story today about Mark Hurd’s forced departure from Hewlett Packard is believable. It’s impossible to judge because the paper relies so thoroughly on unnamed sources who are said to be, in the latest journo-lingo that purports to explain a grant of anonymity, “familiar with the situation.”

But what we do know is this: HP hasn’t come close to making sense about Hurd’s resignation, which was demanded by the board several weeks ago. There’s clearly a scandal, but what is it, exactly?

When a journalist as smart as the New York Times’ Joe Nocera is reduced to sheer speculation — he believes the board canned Hurd essentially because they and the employees had come to despise the guy — you know that the situation has spun wildly out of bounds.

I don’t buy Nocera’s take for one main reason. The board totally enabled Hurd to become one of the greedier and nastier CEOs of recent times. He is clearly a talented man, but his record at HP wasn’t entirely the triumph that his acolytes in the business press trumpted. His tenure featuredmega-slashing of people, and mega-enriching of himself and his insider cronies.

I’m as lost as everyone else when it comes to understanding precisely what, if anything, transpired between Hurd and Jodie Fisher. She’s the actor who was, apparently, being paid $5,000 a pop to be a hostess at HP events.

I say “apparently” because, like everyone else except the insiders who do know, I’m not sure what happened. HP’s stonewalling on just about everything has been epic, and in particular the company hasn’t come close to clean about the precise nature of their relationship.

One question that has a plain answer is this one: What happened to the HP of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the men who built a company that held human beings — and their humanity and communities — as essential to the mission as anything the people created?

What happened was this: It was destroyed by market and political conditions that encouraged boards and CEOs to exemplify the worst of American capitalism.

HP’s board has dug itself a deep hole, and it keeps digging. I take some comfort in knowing that Marc Andreessen is becoming a more visible board member, because I have trouble believing he’s comfortable with what’s going on at HP. I have absolutely no inside knowledge, but I find myself hoping he’s leading a board uprising. Someone needs to do it. Quickly.

Rand Paul’s anonymous accuser

This article was originally published on Salon on August 10, 2010.

Without evidence, the “kidnapping” tale is an example of what media consumers should automatically disbelieve


So Rand Paul felt obliged to deny an accusation that he kidnapped a Baylor University swim teammate and forced her to smoke dope.

I believe him. I believed him before he said he didn’t do it. (Update: And it turns out that no such thing happened, even according to the still-anonymous source for this story. See update below.)

Why? Because the accusation is about something that allegedly happened some 27 years ago, and his accuser is staying anonymous. Sadly, GQ magazine — which published an otherwise interesting (and better-sourced) account of Paul’s, uh, socially active college years — went with this tale.

Even more sadly, the state of American media is such that the accusation has made its way into the mainstream. Bloggers and traditional journalists alike have quoted the GQ piece and given it credence it absolutely hasn’t earned. Anonymous sources deserve no credibility unless they provide evidence.

I hope Paul loses in November, because I find his politics odious in many ways. But I hope this story doesn’t sway anyone.

UPDATE: So, according to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, the accuser, who still won’t give her name, says the GQ piece was wrong in some vital ways. Namely, it wasn’t a forced abduction; she was essentially role-playing; no one forced her to take drugs; and the people involved were friends. In other words, however weird (and there’s definitely some odd behavior here) the situation may have been, it wascollege party-style weirdness, and nothing resembling the alleged criminality we’ve been hearing about.

Several comments have raised the appropriate question of whether what happened in college almost three decades ago is relevant to someone’s fitness for office today. A kidnapping, if it happened, would be relevant, no doubt. It didn’t happen.

And the other hijinks the GQ story discusses, as well as the anonymous woman’s latest account (the truth of which I still don’t take for granted)? Not relevant in the slightest, at least in any sense of disqualifying someone for public office, given how long ago this was and how we all change as we get older. If anything — given that practically everyone I liked in college was “lewd, crude and grossly sacreligious” (characteristics attributed to the group he apparently joined at Baylor) — they tend to make Paul sound more interesting.

Finally, some of the comments on this item reflect a disturbing reality. Many folks want to believe the worst about Paul, and don’t care if there’s any real evidence. I hope they’ll consider how they’d feel if someone made this kind of accusation against them or someone they like.

Shirley Sherrod’s revenge

This article was originally published on Salon on July 29, 2010.

Andrew Breitbart should be held accountable for his deceptions, but is there a libel case here?

This is no surprise: Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was forced out in the wake of false claims that racist views affected her work, says she’ll sue Andrew Breitbart for his bogus “journalism” about her. But are the courts the best place to hold him accountable for his sleaze?

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to predict the outcome of any Sherrod libel claim. A court — and Sherrod herself — would have a number of issues to consider, however.

One is whether Sherrod was a public official or public figure at the time when Breitbart posted his now-infamous Web article featuring an excerpt from a video that purported to show her, an African-American, acknowledging racial bias against white farmers and then acting on it to their detriment. (Your town’s mayor is a public official; Lindsay Lohan is a public figure. Which makes California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger both, I suppose.)

Public officials and public figures have higher hurdles in libel cases, thanks to Supreme Court rulings that required a showing of “actual malice” on the part of the person making the false statement. Essentially, malice means that the defamatory material was published with the knowledge that it was false, or that the publisher showed “reckless disregard” for the truth. (See the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s page on defamation law for more detail.)

Breitbart has claimed he didn’t know the video was a hack job — purporting to show racism when in fact her point, made clear in the context of the full recording, was that the issue was class, not race and that she did her best to help the farmers. If he didn’t know, did he try to find out? Would that matter in a libel case?

Even if he’s telling the truth about not knowing the true nature of the video, and even if that is enough to make the commentary non-libelous, Breitbart may have another problem: his bogus “correction” of the original. Here’s the correction:

While Ms. Sherrod made the remarks captured in the first video featured in this post while she held a federally appointed position, the story she tells refers to actions she took before she held that federal position.

As friend and colleague Scott Rosenberg has pointed out, this is not much better than the original.

A genuine correction, Scott writes, would read something like this:

Our original story was wrong. We quoted Sherrod to suggest that she drove an old white couple off their farm because she was a racist. In fact, she helped that couple hold onto their farm and used the tale to argue against racism.

So, even if the original wasn’t libelous under the current public-figure standard, is Breitbart’s refusal to admit he was wrong about so much — in the face of utterly clear evidence — legally actionable? Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I have a feeling we’re going to find out the answer.

David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard’sBerkman Center for Internet & Society (I co-founded the project when I was a fellow at the center several years ago), says the correction “appears to give her a stronger case on the question of actual malice” than the original posting — again assuming Breitbart wasn’t complicit in the video’s editing. These cases depend on state of mind, he says, but it seems clear that Breitbart knew at the time he posted the correction what was in the full video.

Some other questions, legal and otherwise, that may come up include:

  • Will California’s shield law let Breitbart keep the name of his source confidential?
  • Should anonymous sources be permitted to launder their defamations through others? (I’ll be coming back to this in another posting.)
  • Was Breitbart doing journalism, however crappy it may have been?
  • Has Sherrod ever said or done anything that could fairly be characterized as having racist intent, regardless of what happened in this case?

If Sherrod proceeds with this case, her adult life will almost certainly be put under a microscope — this one with a court order behind it in discovery proceedings — where Breitbart’s lawyers look for even a hint that she’s the kind of person Breitbart was claiming in the first place. Can anyone whose father was lynched by white racists not have had such things to say, ever? My sympathies lie strongly with Sherrod, and I’d hope a jury’s would as well, but I wonder if she’s ready for the legal attack dogs who may demonstrate even less honor, if that’s possible, than Breitbart.

David Ardia notes that individuals seeking libel damages, even when totally justified, often don’t get the results they expect in an often vicious process. In fact, he tells me, it’s fairly rare to get anything close to full satisfaction.

There’s one more question, and I still think it’s the most important one.

  • Why should anyone believe anything Breitbart says at this point?

The answer, of course, is that Breitbart has no credibility whatever among those who count honor and fairness as an element of journalism. He could regain some with a forthright admission of what he did, but at this point that looks unlikely.

Sadly, he still has a substantial audience. I hope anyone reading this is not among its members.