Saturday, February 15, 2014

Poisoning the Water Cooler (Conversation)

In the headlines, in the articles, and in the comboxes, the indignation was palpable when the news took over the internet this week that a "homophobic" mother had taken the occasion of a 7-year-old's birthday party invitation to express her disapproval of the lifestyle of the two men raising the child.

From the K-98.3 Facebook post that started it all.
The headline in the Huffington Post article by James Nichols screamed, "Mom Writes Horrifying Response To Birthday Party Invite From Kid With Gay Dads."

The article explained the above image thus:
Originally posted on the K-98.3 Facebook page, the heartbreaking note allegedly written by a disapproving mother on an invite to a birthday party for a 7-year-old is certainly a testament to the work that still has to be done to overcome homophobia in our society.
Today, then, the news breaks that the entire thing was made up.

From the "message" on the radio station's webpage, posted by the hosts of the show that broke [i.e., fabricated] the story:
On Wednesday, we told you the story of Sophia's birthday party, and one parent's objection to the same-sex household of Sophia's parents.  We also posted the invitation on our Facebook page, and invited comments from our followers.
This story was, in fact, totally fictitious, and created by the two of us.  This was done without the knowledge of K-98.3 management or ownership.
We were attempting to spur a healthy discourse on a highly passionate topic.
"Attempting to spur a healthy discourse..."  I cannot imagine a more complete image of utter failure in that respect.

And I want to be clear before getting into this any further: this makes me absolutely furious.

Now, of course, HuffPo has updated its original story:

It now "appears" that way?
And how do you like that for a retraction?

Some might say a retraction isn't needed. But remember Nichols' original story? Let me quote a line once more.

While Nichols wrote that the note was " allegedly written by a disapproving mother," he then, in the very same sentence, went on to say that it was "certainly a testament to the work that still has to be done to overcome homophobia in our society" [emphases added].

Allegedly... certainly. And therein, my friends, lies the problem.

Everyone who uses Facebook has had it happen to him at one time or another that he clicked that"share" button and re-posted something, perhaps with a bit of emphatic, outraged commentary, only to find out later that it was untrue. I've had it happen myself, personally. And each time it's a reminder I need to be more diligent... to mind my sources... to double-check things... to verify and look for a source of better repute when a claim seems outrageous. And, all else failing, to issue a retraction when, despite all my efforts, I am duped.

But Nichols? From all I can tell, there was no due diligence whatsoever in the reporting of this story. Did he bother even calling the radio station to confirm? Did he try calling the phone number of the mother which was written right there, plain to see, on the invitation? If he did, he might have said so in his article: think about it, how often have you read, "A call placed to such-and-such was not returned as of press time" or something of the sort.

But we've grown lazy in our news consumption, and we don't look for statements like that anymore and prize them the way we should. We skim, comment, and share, and we fail to be as outraged as we should when these sorts of scams are perpetrated.

Let me be clear: I've written before about journalists being lazy and stupid and slanderous and I've deliberately distanced myself from the knee-jerk reactions of calling for people to be sacked. I don't want anyone to mistake me as wavering from that stance. In most cases, that will still be the way that I feel. In fact, I'm even willing to cut Nichols a break for his HuffPo piece here, shoddy and sloppy and stupid as was his work in the matter.

But I will be positively outraged if these radio hosts are not IMMEDIATELY fired. There's a difference between being stupid and offensive and sloppy and just making shit up. If our media culture is going to preserve any ideal of integrity, these two need to be thrown to the curb - NOW.

True story.

And to revisit Nichols: I said above that I thought a fuller retraction and an apology were in order. Let me elaborate on that a bit.

A casual observer might think that it isn't needed in this case. The story was fictitious, so there's really been no harm: no one was hurt, because no one involved really existed.

But that misses the wider issue.

The public discourse in this country is already in a disgraceful state, especially as regards LGBT issues. Anyone who dares take a stance against issues like same-sex 'marriage,' or who announces that the gay lifestyle is incompatible with their religious beliefs, is quick to be shamed, ridiculed, and condemned.

This fake story was, in effect, the LGBT equivalent of race-baiting. It generated a heated context for a debate right off the bat, loaded with pathos that already was stilted and favoring to one side of the discussions that would ensue.

I remember reading a very early comment on the story, a person expressing that he felt sorry for the woman's little boy being raised in such a way. And thus the thing very quickly became not about what the mom had said or how she had said it, but that she said it at all - nay, that she even dared think it.

Most of those who took to comboxes to voice their outrage made it very clear that the real issue was beyond the hurtfulness of the note and its rhetorical daftness: the real issue was that this woman was fundamentally wrong-headed for her beliefs in the first place, and her choice to raise her child according to those beliefs was very early - and subsequently as the discussions proceeded very often - likened to child abuse.

And so that was the environment into which Christians and others were lured by this prank.

Some waded in to say that they thought it would have been better for the mother simply to demur and to keep her child home: a simple "Regretfully, no," would have sufficed.

But they were told that wouldn't have sufficed

No, nothing would suffice but that she let her little boy go to the party and get over her bigoted and hateful prejudices.

So, you see, that is why I think Mr. Nichols owes us all an apology. Because there's already poison enough in the water cooler conversations around this country any time the topic touches upon this issue; and it's only getting worse; and we deserve better from journalists than for them to carelessly parrot nonsense that increases the already lethal levels of toxicity.
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