Shortly after the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a drug overdose, reporters at The National Enquirer conducted an “exclusive” interview with a distraught man saying he was David Bar Katz, Hoffman’s close friend and one of the first to find his body. The man spilled a tantalizing story of sex and drugs with Hoffman, saying they were lovers and that he had seen Hoffman freebase cocaine the night before he died. The Enquirer, apparently not pausing to consider why one of Hoffman’s dearest friends would choose the notorious tabloid for his confession, published the story. It was, in the parlance of journalistic cynics, too good to check.
Of course, the real David Bar Katz never spoke with the Enquirer; the entire story was false. According to a subsequent recounting by the Enquirer in a paid ad in The New York Times, reporters at the tabloid were duped by someone who “falsely and convincingly” claimed to be Katz. This revelation, however, came only after the real Katz sued the Enquirer for $50 million. His legal complaint called the Enquirer’s behavior “outrageous, wanton, willful, and malicious.”
Just so. But perhaps even more damaging than the original report were the countless posts, shares, blogs, and retweets, spreading the slander in the swirling vortex of the Internet. Katz himself told CNN he was struck by “the degree of seeing how everyone picks it up and . . . treats it as news.” Among those who reposted the story were The International Business Times, the celebrity site MStarsNews, and the website of Philadelphia Magazine. It was hours before most stories came down.
The whole sordid tale illustrates the treacherous nature of Internet news, which prizes speed and seduction above all. With the collapse of traditional news organizations, the occupation — it’s hard to call it a profession — of “content provider” has emerged, a motley collection that includes serious journalists and unscrupulous hacks alike. The one thing they share is a hunger to be noticed in the intense competition for eyeballs: to push a story up the meter of clicks and likes that confer value on a reporter’s “brand.” Since the Internet loves data, it’s a natural venue for performance metrics that rate the quantity of a story’s consumers rather than its quality. And when clicks equal cash, even responsible content providers have a disincentive to check.
In a recent mea culpa in Esquire magazine, reporter Luke O’Neil laments that placing a premium on speed over accuracy has become an automatic response among content providers. “What is new is that we’re barely even apologizing for increasingly considering the truth optional,” he writes. “Haste and confusion aren’t bugs in the coding anymore — they’re features.”
What is the incentive for content providers to be responsible?
Too many websites, even those tied to respectable outlets, are a dog’s dinner of real news, advertising, gossip, and sheer hooey, with little effort to distinguish gold from dross. We’ve all seen them: the “sponsored links,” the seemingly clairvoyant stalker ads, the “one weird old trick to lose belly fat.” Unless you read the fine print, it’s hard to know what information comes from a trusted source and what is just click bait.
Yes, caveat emptor and all that. A number of excellent fact-checking sites do run many of the most egregious falsehoods to ground. But invaluable as they are to the pursuit of truth, these sites are like using Narcan after a drug overdose: They only kick in after the injury. In fact, these referees may enable shoddy reporting by perpetuating the illusion that the Web is “self-correcting’’ and so errors don’t much matter.
The Internet didn’t invent sloppy, salacious, or irresponsible journalism, as The Enquirer amply shows. But it magnifies every hurtful deception and should be used with care. When you think of it, every individual who shares a story on Twitter or Facebook is a content provider. What is their incentive to be responsible?
The Hoffman slander story ends happily, sort of, as The Enquirer settled Katz’s lawsuit by agreeing to apologize in The Times and fund a foundation to support struggling playwrights. But this week marked the 25th birthday of the Internet. You would think we would have outgrown these adolescent episodes by now.