Huffington Post And The View From Bogustan: Standing Behind Blatantly False Claims Isn't Journalism

from the what's-wrong-with-people-over-there dept

Over the last week, we’ve been debunking a bizarre “series” of stories over at Huffington Post, which is claiming to be about “the history of email” but is not. It’s about a guy, Shiva Ayyadurai, who may have written an implementation of email in the late 1970s, but which was clearly well after email was in widespread use. Ayyadurai’s actual program (and as far as I can tell, he has not released any screenshots of what the program actually looked like) may have worked well for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) where he wrote it as a 14-year-old, but it contributed nothing to the future of email. Beyond email existing in various forms long before that, nothing that happened later in the email space appears to have happened because of Ayyadurai’s program. Each of the advancements in email came from elsewhere, with no indication that anyone anywhere was even aware of what Ayyadurai had done in New Jersey.

Ayyadurai has waged an incredibly bizarre public relations campaign, and the more you look at it, the more bizarre it becomes. However, anyone who looks over any of the primary documentation (much of which we’ve linked to in our previous posts) can only conclude that while Ayyadurai may have independently come up with some ideas, he most certainly did not invent email. It was widely in use. The key arguments in his claim are obviously false, and prey on (1) a misunderstanding or misrepresetation of copyright law and (2) an almost fraudulent misquoting of Dave Crocker, a guy who really was heavily involved in early email efforts. Again, all of that is discussed in the earlier posts.

What I still cannot fathom is how the Huffington Post can stand behind this “reporting.” I’ve now heard from three different HuffPost reporters on the news side who all say that they’re horrified that no one at the company has done anything about this. The only official response I got stood by the stories, but actual reporters at the company recognize that their own credibility has been absolutely destroyed by this. It’s been pointed out that the five part series is on HuffPo’s “blogging” side — which gives a platform to PR folks with no editorial oversight.

But, because HuffPo does little to separate out its “news” division from those open “blogs,” the blogs get filed with all sorts of clearly bogus crap. Much of it gets totally ignored, but some (apparently including PR “guru” Larry Weber and his business partner Shiva Ayyadurai) are willing to exploit the fact that no one recognizes the blogging platform has no editorial review, to pretend that a “reputable source” has “confirmed” the story. Ayyadurai himself keeps pointing to the HuffPo stories as some sort of “vindication” (while hilarious suggesting that I’m being paid off by Raytheon…). He leaves out that these are all blog posts by his friends and partners, put up on the site with no editorial review. Again: every serious look into the history has found that he is not the inventor of email.

And that’s why it’s so damaging to the good reporting that some actual HuffPo reporters do, to find out that the company won’t retract and renounce this series as a PR campaign for a series of blatantly fraudulent claims — obvious to anyone who looks at the documentation. Even worse, however, is the fact that part of the HuffPo journalism side — HuffPo Live — picked up on the completely bogus campaign and did a whole fawning interview with Ayyadurai, never once presenting the evidence that he’s fraudulently misrepresenting basic facts. And, contrary to the claims from Huffington Post’s PR people, the HuffPo Live articles, written by Emily Tess Katz, do not have any “clarification” — bogus or not.

I’ve now asked the author of the HuffPo live stories, Emily Tess Katz, multiple times if she still stands by this story, and she has refused to respond. Journalistic integrity! According to one report, she had said she stood by it, and then deleted the tweet.

We’ve talked in the past about the concept of “he said/she said” journalism — what Journalism Professor Jay Rosen likes to call “the view from nowhere” — in which journalists feel (incorrectly) that “being objective” means giving “both sides equal weight and letting the reader decide.” That’s bad. Journalism should be about the search for truth.

The thing that’s truly baffling here isn’t that HuffPo and HuffPo Live are doing “the view from nowhere,” but that they’re actually actively promoting a lie. It’s the view from Bogustan. Rather than promoting the truth or presenting false balance, Huffington Post is actively claiming that a clearly false story is true — and when presented with reams of evidence on that front, it appears that the company is simply throwing up its hands and hoping the whole story just blows over. Beyond the reporter, I’ve emailed Huffington Post PR people, and they, too, are now refusing to comment. Meanwhile, some of the company’s very good reporters are hanging their heads in shame.

My suggestion: perhaps it’s time to start looking for a publication to work for that actually takes journalistic integrity seriously.

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Companies: aol, huffington post

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Comments on “Huffington Post And The View From Bogustan: Standing Behind Blatantly False Claims Isn't Journalism”

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56 Comments
Mike C. (profile) says:

Re: Too late

Too late. The whole series has been removed and replaced with the following:

Editor’s Note

The post that previously appeared in this space — part of a blogger-generated series on the history of email — is no longer available. Readers and media commentators alerted us to factual and sourcing issues in the series and, after an internal review, we removed it from the site.

Guess they finally listened….

JEDIDIAH says:

Highly curated bullsh*t

The problem with the “equal weight” argument is that it never happened here. All HuffPo is presenting is the distorted version of one side of this debate. This is a classic case of so-called journalists resisting any attempt to present evidence contrary to their pre-conceived narrative.

This problem has manifested itself in other ways in recent weeks.

With enough information, you can sort through the crap. However, this requires the journalists in question being willing to expand the scope of the information they expose their audience to.

That’s the exact opposite of what HuffPo is doing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Highly curated bullsh*t

I actually like the throw spaghetti at a wall and see what sticks in journalism. At least you are being thorough.

In this case it seems a single person at Huffington have gone off the rails while the rest is use of the fluid and generally problematic “blogging” part of the site.

The real problem is that the paper has stone walled and hopes the story dies out. Hopefully enough of a shitstorm will be drummed up as to force the official site to sufficiently apologize for the story. That would be the only good end-result for everyone (except Weber ofc.).

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Highly curated bullsh*t

I’m actually not so sure the problem here is ‘refusal to wade through a bunch of crap’. If I had to guess, I’d say there are two types(three if you count the reporters who want nothing to do with it and wish it had never happened) involved in this debacle over at HuffPo:

1: Those with a direct stake in pushing the lies, like Larry Webber, who whoops, just so happens to be a business partner with Ayyadurai, and so has a financial incentive to keep up the lies.

2: The people at HuffPo itself who thought they had a winner, ran with it, and only later realized they’d been tricked.

Rather than just admit that so much time and effort had been spent backing the words of liars, they instead double-down, because the alternative would be to admit that they were conned by someone it would have taken a minimum amount of research to expose as a fraud.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It's Journalism....

“PR/Marketing can be journalism.”

I disagree. Journalism is an effort to discover and report truth (especially truth that someone doesn’t want people to know). PR/Marketing is an effort to sell you something. They are two totally separate things.

PR/Marketing can never be journalism because it’s not an effort to discover truth, it’s an effort to present a predetermined message. That is not even close to journalism.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It's Journalism....

I always thought that true journalism involved, you know, journalling. Recording events as they are experienced. Everything else is editorializing.

So posting an interview with someone making up blatantly false stories about what happened is journalism, albeit not very good journalism, but publishing something written/reported by someone else is just hearsay.

This current debacle seems to be a combination of bad journalism, hearsay, and bad PR.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It's Journalism....

Take off your first layer of sun glasses. While there is some intention of the writer argument in it, the end-result cannot be solely judged on that intention. Crappy journalism can be exactly PR. If you are insufficiently researching stories and checking sources, you will write what can be considered PR. It may be unintentional, but as a reader, the intention is useless.

Removing someone or something from the definition of journalistic is on its own problematic since it would entail a narrow definition where the special perks can be removed on account of what is written. Ironically by narrowing the definition of journalism may be used to avoid those seeking the truth as opposed to the more cooperative types.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 It's Journalism....

“Crappy journalism can be exactly PR.”

Indeed so. I never said otherwise. My point is that there’s a pretty big difference between PR and journalism. Journalism that is degenerate enough to be PR isn’t actually journalism. It’s PR.

“Removing someone or something from the definition of journalistic is on its own problematic since it would entail a narrow definition where the special perks can be removed on account of what is written”

I don’t understand your meaning. What “special perks” are you talking about? Also, you can’t remove a “someone” from the definition of journalism because “journalism” isn’t defined based on who is doing it. Journalism is a verb, and can be done by literally anybody.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Screen shots

Pine is an offshoot of Elm — as its name suggests. Both of those, along with mutt (not a direct descendant of Elm, but developed by people very familiar with it and deliberately similar), run in terminal windows and use the entire screen. They’re quite usable, much more so than far larger and buggier GUI-based programs like Thunderbird.

These were a step forward from command-line clients that didn’t use cursor manipulation to utilize the full screen: the v7/sysV “mail” command and the UCB/BSD “Mail”. They competed — sort of — with the MH mail system, which used a different storage mechanism and a very different cognitive model.

But note that none of these are a mail system, per se: these are mail clients, used by users to compose, send, read and manipulate messages. Mail transport — actually getting messages from point A to point B — was handled by various pieces of software depending on what OS one was running and what network one was connected to. And that’s where things like sendmail and delivermail and MMDF and so on came in, followed by things like postfix and exim. (And qmail, although that’s used exclusively by ignorant assholes who don’t know any better.)

Other parts of the email ecosystem have evolved along with these: procmail, for example, is quite popular and is an extremely powerful tool for handling incoming messages. fetchmail is great for pulling messages from POP and IMAP servers. grepmail is a terrific searching tool. What all of these have in common is that they’re open-source and they’re written to comply with the same standards (RFCs) so they interoperate: you can retrieve mail with fetchmail, file it with procmail, read it with mutt and send it with sendmail; or you can use pine to access IMAP servers directly and send mail with postfix, or any other combination.

Peter (profile) says:

Excellent reporting as always -- keep up the good fight!

It’s truly amazing how LITTLE good reporting there is anymore, but you’re certainly one of the good guys (and that’s saying much too little) and it shows in spades. I just want to say thank you; it’s shows in all kinds of ways that you’re probably not aware of. Thank God for Techdirt, and all the rest too.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Speaking of which...

“Nobody is disputing that he wrote an email system.”

Why not? He’s clearly a liar and a fraud who has made and is making claims that are laughably false — well, except to the gullible, naive morons at the Huffington Post.

So why should we believe that he wrote any email system of any kind ever? Where is the proof? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and at the moment, there is no proof that he actually wrote anything.

So: source code or STFU. If he doesn’t publish the full source immediately AND prove that he’s the author (I wouldn’t put it past this dirtbag to have stolen it from someone else) AND prove its provenance, then he’s lying about writing an email system in 1978.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Speaking of which...

“So why should we believe that he wrote any email system of any kind ever? Where is the proof? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and at the moment, there is no proof that he actually wrote anything.”

There is quite a lot of proof, actually. Not only do we have numerous people who claim they’ve used the system, we also have a copyright filing on the source code and the manuals documenting how to use the system.

Nurlip (profile) says:

HuffPo has had maybe 5 articles i’ve found both original and interesting. But more than that, I cannot stand 98% of the comments posted there. That site has a terribly daft reader base and i cringe just thinking about some of the ‘comment fights’ i’ve read there based on completely irrelevant or false claims by one or more of the posters. Its a perfect example of why some news sites don’t have commenting with every article.

Anonymous Coward says:

On occasion I’ve had the chance to read a few Huffpo articles. Not all them seemed to measure up. I thought maybe it was just I misunderstood the facts. What I have noticed is that I go there far less often. After this I won’t be going there at all unless I first rank it on the order with The Onion. Only The Onion is pretty straight forward about what it does.

The funny thing about integrity is that it takes a long time to build it but given stuff like this it can be destroyed along with the journalistic integrity of all the reporters associated with it in a very short time.

HuffPo has just given us a reminder on why it’s important. It’s also lost an occasional reader over this. I am sure that the longer this goes on the more readership will look at it as being the next Inquirer with the reporting crew gaining the reputation that the company they keep is a reflection of their own integrity. Nice way to collapse a business.

Un (profile) says:

Re: Re: Eyegrab

Prove my point by making a big deal of something that has become landscape. Yes, the ground is solid and I can walk on it.

Forgive me for showing up late on the Internet in 1989 after it lost its exclusivity and the likes of Software Tool and Die brought us bottomfeeders into the clubhouse. I was heartbroken to learn that I signed on to the second public access provider. Damn Californians.

I worked with Ray Tomlinson at GTE. Whoop tee doo, basking in the glow of the at sign. I haven’t washed my hands since.

HuffPo has been irrelevant since the moment it mixed blog with news. It’s a fashion statement. A poor story and no retraction is like pants that don’t match a shirt. So TechDirt has become People magazine.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Eyegrab

Yet for all that, you Don’t Get It. You fail to understand why email was, is, and will likely still be for some time, “the killer app”.

There’s a reason that email accounted for most ARPAnet traffic. Of course that’s not true any more (it’s dwarfed by multimedia) but it’s still the best communication method we have — which is why the people who know more about the Internet than anyone else — the IETF, NANOG, the W3C, etc. — all structure their communications around it.

Email has been declared dead too many times to count…yet here we are in 2014 and nobody has presented a superior alternative yet. I’ve no doubt that one day someone will. But until then, it’s the king — so YES, it does matters who gets credit for it, and YES, it does matter that HuffPost is apparently too stupid, too cheap, too lazy, too ignorant, too arrogant, and too incompetent to do even perfunctory fact-checking on stories before publishing them.

Whatever (profile) says:

The future of Journalism

What I think is most telling here is that the birds are coming home to roost on the “future of journalism” that Mike and the Techdirt crew have tried to paint for the last few years. The internet’s offerings are numerous, and some of the “stars” are things like Drudge, Breibart, Politico, and Huffington Post. People seem to believe these as credible news sources, which makes it truly scary.

What we are seeing is the moment where opinion overwhelms fact, and everyone else is left scrambling to keep up in a never ending slide through the bottom of the barrel into the cess pool below it.

If this is the future of journalism, you can keep it.

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