The Internet is broken… and I don’t know who to call.
It’s not that the whole darn thing is awry. You can still get email, download ITunes, and, I heard from a friend, view rather disturbing porn. But the doohickey that corrects erroneous posts by The New York Times is on the fritz.
What’s frustrating for troubleshooters is that the problem seems to be intermittent. When NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd ripped on Dick Cheney again using a chunk of copy lifted from Josh Marshall’s blog at Talking Point Memo last week the problem was spotted immediately by bloggers—two days later the Times posted a correction acknowledging Dowd’s lack of “attribution.” But when Times’ reporter Jennifer Steinhauer unfairly characterized the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) as morphing into an extremist paramilitary organization the same week, the Internet’s NY Times truth filter crapped out.
Steinhauer’s article set off my personal bullpucky alert system as I have some familiarity with the BSA. My father was a Scoutmaster for 15 years and I participated in the program as a Scout from age 8 to 16, a leader for 3 years and an active participant in Scouting activities with my two stepsons for another 7 years. But while I read the story and cried “bunk,” the collective wisdom of the Internet failed to amend the alarmist “reporting” replete with carefully edited, terribly inflammatory quotes and staged photos designed to elicit a negative, emotional response.
The article was so distorted and slanted that to distinguish it from a National Enquirer piece Steinhauer had to drop in five dollar words like “obstreperous” to let readers know they were getting their information from the venerated New York Times.
Though entitled “Scouts Train to Fight Terrorists, and More” the article reported on the activities of Explorers, not Scouts. Associating Scouts with Explorers is like associating the USC football team with the Phi Beta Kappa weekend softball team just because they happen to be affiliated with the same university—though the latter far more loosely.
Exploring, which comprises about 10% of BSA-affiliated participants, is about career exploration, not the woodworking, Scout-O-Ramas, camping and merit badges the general public pictures when Scouting is mentioned. Explorers fall under a not-for-profit corporation called Learning for Life that is merely a coeducational affiliate of the BSA. Explorer “posts” are run by sponsoring police departments, fire stations, or private sector organizations in areas such as law, health, engineering, skilled trades or aviation.
News flash Steinhauer, the fact that some Explorer posts are affiliated with the U.S. Border Patrol does not signal an “intense ratcheting up of one of the group’s longtime missions...” Though I traded Scouting for dating when I turned 16, the age at which most youth begin participating in Exploring, several friends joined the program. Guess what? 30 years ago Explorers were riding along with cops, going through training simulations with SWAT teams and role playing with undercover agents assigned to drug details.
Jennifer, my dear, perhaps you don't like that the Border Patrol arrests your beloved illegal... strike that... "undocumented" immigrants or that it considers marijuana an illicit substance. It may irk you that they don’t coddle terrorists. But their training simulations are hardly a new aspect of the Exploring program. New to you doesn’t make it is news.
That the Times slanted the story surprises me little. But where is the Internet and blogosphere on all this? My beloved, do-a-good-turn-daily, borderline pyromaniac, Boy Scouts aren’t training to fight terrorist or anything else for that matter. For Pete’s sake, the BSA still includes paintballing and laser tag on their list of unauthorized activities.
Having gone on many a campout in recent years, I am more than familiar with the Scouting version of don’t ask, don’t tell. When the urge to paintball (or man’s-most-awesome-invention-ever as I like to call it) gets too strong, Scout troops unofficially organize wildly popular ‘This-isn’t-a-Scouting-Activity!” paintballing excursions.
Oh, and Ms. Jennifer, when boys assume a stance for pictures with their paintball guns, they try to look as menacing as the Explorers in your photos with their air soft plastic pellet guns—it’s what teenagers do. They strike a pose. They scowl. They play the bad-ass role. They act like teenagers.
Working for an organization with a propensity to cherry pick the facts that best conform to its worldview, Steinhauer didn’t just report on a competition held by an obscure group of Explorer posts in Imperial County, California (with advisors suffering, admittedly, from severe foot-in-mouth disease), she made the extra effort to abruptly segue into allegations that police officers are sexually abusing Explorers.
The blogosphere went wild regurgitating her allegations and her reference to an unspecified University of Nebraska (NU) study as proof that Boy Scout leaders were ramping up to give Catholic priests a run for the dubious lead in the ‘No-Child’s-Behind-Left” sweepstakes. Not one of the 23 blogs I visited dug deep enough into her mention of a report to find that it was a study by Samuel Walker and Dawn Irlbeck, entitled: “Police Sexual Abuse of Teenage Girls: A 2003 Update on Driving While Female.”
The NU report, which focused primarily on allegations by teenage females pulled over by cops and prostitutes threatened with arrest by cops, did indicate that there had been some allegations of abusive comments or actions directed towards female Explorers who had gone—unescorted--on ride alongs with male officers. Hmmm, coupling teenage girls with male cops is a bad idea? Who would of thunk?
Unlike the Times or the blogs, the NU study did note that when the problem surfaced over a decade ago, Explorers implemented a requirement that at least two adult, non-police supervisors act as chaperones at all Explorer functions.
Perhaps the blogosphere didn’t dig deeper into the difference between Explorers and Scouts or the facts surrounding old allegations of sexual abuse because they were too busy crafting predictable Hitler Youth analogies. Depending on how the blog leaned politically, headlines portrayed “Scouts” as either ‘Cheney Youth” or “Obama Youth.”
(Cheney, of course, is fun to hate. Obama took a hit because the Times article mentioned that a role played by a “terrorist” in one of the simulations was that of a “disgruntled Iraq war vet,” rekindling outrage on the right over a recent Department of Homeland Security document identifying Second Amendment supporters, pro-life advocates, and returning war veterans as potential terrorists.)
Smart move on the Times’ part. By distracting the right wing bloggers with the war-veteran-turned-terrorist angle, traditional supporters of the BSA got off track in their commentary and “analysis.” Instead, they joined the fray labeling Scouts as “Boy Storm Troopers of America” and “Homeland Gestapo.”
The fact that the commentary quickly degraded into Nazi comparisons may provide an insight into why the Internet didn’t self correct. Early pioneers of the Internet who posted discussions on Usenet forums found that arguments, if carried on long enough, frequently resulted in someone dropping a Nazi or Hitler comparison. This occurred so frequently that an adage known as Goodwin’s Law developed stating that such comparisons were almost inevitable.
A corollary to Godwin’s Law states that once a Nazi analogy is made the debate is over and whoever made the comparison automatically loses the debate. In the case of the Scouting story, commentators bypassed reasoned discourse and immediately played the Nazi card. The discussion terminated and truth lost out.