In doo-doo we trust
Journalists of all stripes were aghast this past Sunday, as the august New York Times printed column inch after column inch detailing the lies and deception of reporter Jayson Blair -- all under the blind eye of superiors. How could this have happened? Is our most trusted news source to be trusted? "Jaysongate," as the New York media dubbed it, is another low point in the history of journalism.
Unfortunately, it didn't take long to sink even lower, this time with "Pottygate." The journalistic snafus were less drastic, but the smell was distinctly malodorous. For those who usually keep their minds out of the toilet, here's the poop: Microsoft's cheeky MSN UK division announced on May 2 that it was developing the iLoo, a device with a flat panel display and WiFi Net access, which came embedded in port-a-potties. The test run was set for summer festivals in England. National outlets and wire stories covered the story, albeit with a bit of humor.
As people started to make fun of the notion of the "Pee-C," a rival inventor stepped forward, telling the Inquirer that Microsoft must have borrowed his idea for a device also called the iLoo. Despite many initial stories running lines saying "Microsoft denied that this was a joke," on Tuesday the company reversed course, saying now that the whole thing was an April Fools' joke. At this point, the press was free and clear to dump on the software giant, as they themselves felt pretty, uh, soiled.
Sometime Tuesday afternoon, a search for "iLoo" at Google News had the effect of bringing a string of one-liners. Here's a sampling:
MS Flushes Out iLoo Rumors (The Statesman of India)
Microsoft: iLoo Idea Full of Poop (Wired News)
Microsoft Admits iLoo was a Load of Crap (Independent Online of South Africa)
Software Titan Poo-Poos iLoo (New York Post)
But the saga wasn't over yet, as Microsoft soon reversed course yet again, admitting that the project had indeed been real, but was now killed by Microsoft HQ. MSN UK's Consumer Press Officer Demelza Fryer-Saxby wrote to me, saying it was all caused by "people moving too quickly and who misspoke" and "miscommunication." That meant wire services such as The Associated Press and Reuters had to file three stories on the iLoo -- an announcement, a hoax story, and a non-hoax story. Reuters had already retracted its first story when it found out about the hoax. Now what? An un-retraction?
Most journos in the online world were less tainted by the scandal, and showed a bit more skepticism at the hoax announcement. News.com's Michael Kanellos loaded his "hoax" story with many caveats: the original annoucement was on May 2, not April 1; Microsoft had no history of fake press releases; and "U.K. natives now living in the United States could not recall any British tradition of pulling April Fools' stunts a month or so late," Kanellos wrote.
So when the news came out that the hoax was not really a hoax, Kanellos wasn't surprised, and thought the print media would bear the brunt. "I think you'd have to stretch to say that we gave the hoax theory much credence [at News.com]," Kanellos wrote me. "We certainly gave it less than our allegedly more sober collegues in print. It might hurt Microsoft credibility a bit, but who cares. They care about two classes of people: customers and investors. The press and governement are low on the totem pole. Sad to say, it's part of their success."
Mike Masnick, who runs the research firm and Weblog Techdirt, thought that the iLoo non-story exposed weak fact-checking at big news organizations. "Just look at Jayson Blair and the New York Times," he told me. "You're not going to fact check interviews with soldiers injured in Iraq or interrogation miscues in the D.C. sniper case, do you really think you're going to fact-check an Internet-connected shitter?"
Masnick noted that the online news source Neowin.net had run a detailed interview with a Microsoft marketing manager about iLoo plans, so the possibility of a hoax seemed remote. But still, the idea sounded so weird in the first place, it was eminently believable that this was just another high-tech prank by Microsofties -- in Britain, to boot.
The final mess
So how would the press cover the non-hoax story in the end? With a great big dollop of humor. The San Jose Mercury News' columnist Mike Cassidy wrote that "it has left Microsoft open to jokes that its marketing efforts are in the toilet." And further: "The rocket rise to international fame for the iLoo is no doubt a story for the textbooks. (See, chapter 'What Not to Do.') It involved a global company and the warp speed news spreads in the era of the Internet." Cassidy later told me that some readers weren't laughing at his gaiety, noting that getting a story wrong is not a joke to them.
But Europemedia had no problem taking the news, uh, sitting down. The Euro news site ran a story full of puns and jokes on the debacle under the over-hyphenated headline: "Wi-fi-while-you-wee-wee not load of crap after all, but dumped anyway." It's almost as if all of Microsoft's pronouncements, misprounouncements and missed pronouncements had given the press free reign to write whatever they wanted.
Yuks aside, the problem here is one of trust. You trust Microsoft's press releases to be real. You trust wire stories to be fact-checked and correct. You trust further communication by Microsoft officials and flacks to be honest. You want to trust their final version of the truth. So you are left in a bind, tongue-tied, eyes crossed, head spinning. Maybe the only place to ponder this is the last unwired, unconnected place left for humanity: the toilet.