Tuesday, November 9, 2010



I am the beneficiary of friends and relatives bombarding me daily with emails. Great! But there is a nasty downside to the flood of cartoons, jokes and polemics because too many people forward crap to me as well.
By crap, I mean nasty racism in stories and jokes. (That conference in Ottawa on anti-semitism found that there is now a record flood of hatred against the Jews.)
I mean mini sermons that are filled with malicious information and contrived propaganda.
I mean information about politicians that is so slanted and mean, you wonder if the sender understands that democracy only works when you have honest debate over the two (or three or four) sides of an issue. You don't have to dream up hateful stuff about politicians simply because they disagree with you.
Spare me the garbage over Barack Obama's birth certificate and religion. Spare me the murderous rhetoric of the anti-abortionists. Don't give me amateurish insights into possible conspiracies. Don't forward golfer jokes that were circulating before Tiger exposed himself.
An easy estimate is that I get at least two emails about any new joke that is around. As for the old ones, often I stopped thinking they were funny ten years ago.
It is time for people to think before they forward an email. I don't want another set of garbled figures about how refugee claimants do better financially than Canadian pensioners since those figures were shot down half a decade ago. Our governments at every level give us plenty of legitimate targets to attack without us having to make stuff up like that.
For years I have lectured journalism students and cub reporters to beware of EVERYTHING they read on the Internet. Just because someone has access to a computer and knows how to put a blog together doesn't mean they also have something insightful or revealing to say.
I read about the supposed $200 million a day cost of Obama's travels just hours before I heard it at dinner from a respected retired journalist who should have known better. Another journalist and me pointed out that the figures were so huge and the source so doubtful, it wasn't hard to know it was a hoax.
The next night, Bill O'Reilly of the anti-Democrat Fox News, just waved the figures away as nonsense when Jon Stewart raised it on his show, expecting O'Reilly to take the bait and to start foaming at Obama. Since then various spokesman for the Administration and various rational talking heads have blown the "scandal" to smithereens, pointing out, for example, that all the U.S. ships that were supposed to have accompanied Obama to India would have been a tenth of the U.S. Navy. So the number was ridiculous. Yet suckers are still spreading the story.
It may have been started by an anonymous blogger in India quoting an anonymous Indian official. I can tell you that any newspaper larger than a free shopper would never have accepted that as the basis for any story. Most newspapers have at least three sets of eyes on any story before it gets into print. So I recommend, using that as a foundation, that you should never accept anything on the Internet unless, as a minimum, the writer has achieved some credibility or there are other sources, especially major newspapers and magazines.
So keep the emails coming, friends, but remember that if you forward obvious nonsense, it will reflect on my opinion of you. No sermons, please, or diatribes. I can write that nonsense myself, without research.
In the glory days of the Toronto Sun, most columns that I wrote, according to readership surveys, were read by a million people. When I did my research and when I wrote, I knew that libel lawyers and friends of the boss would be scrutinizing any accusation along with nitpicking readers. Legal costs and angry memos hovered over my head like the sword of Damocles. When your credibility and readability slip away, so does the job.
That's the way newspapers work. That's the reason why they will survive in some form. People know, and their numbers will only increase, that they can only believe a story on the Internet when they find embedded in it enough verifiable facts about the writer and the item to determine it wasn't just some nut telling us about his latest hallucination.
There has been an explosion in the media: 24/7 TV and radio news, community weeklies, magazines and on-line access to newspapers and magazines. Then we have the huge and confusing world of the Internet, bloggers, the baby talk of twitter and social media.
It has never been harder to figure out what's really going on. And too many of our high school grads don't even know how to read a label. Google has replaced thinking and in-depth research. At such a time, we can't let the anonymous mobs that stampede around the Internet poison the wells from which we draw the information that govern our lives.

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