04 March 2008

Inability to 'Google'

Back in May 2006 I wrote an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed on "high tech cheaters." Part of my target was journalism prof Richard Craig at San Jose State University, profiled in The New York Times as part of a battle against internet cheating - in Dr. Craig's case cheating on spelling tests. I suggested that Dr. Craig's time - and surely his students' time - would be better spent on lessons in how to use spell-checkers and how to use those internet search tools which he, and others in the article, considered ways of cheating.

I even pointed out that just a few days after running their (quarterly) anti-educational technology article, The New York Times ran a front page piece that was entirely false. Two weeks later they admitted as much, and this paragraph stood out:

"And the suggestion that an Airbus A380 with stand-up seats "could conceivably fit in 853 passengers" should have also raised questions. Just four weeks earlier, an [article in The New York Times] edited by Ms. Messinger had made clear that an A380 filled with regular coach seats was capable of carrying 853 passengers."

In other words, if the Times reporters had simply 'Googled' their own object of interest, or just searched their own newspaper website, they would have been spared a great deal of embarrassment.

Fast forward to today. I have no idea if Dr. Craig is still giving spelling tests to university journalism majors or if he has realized what century he teaches in and is focusing on more important issues. But The New York Times still seems woefully unable to teach it's staff about the basic use of search tools and data analysis necessary not just to 21st Century journalism, but simply 21st Century citizenship and 21st Century consumerism.

One week after the Times's Michiko Kakutani wrote a fawning review of one more claim to victimhood ('the contemporary American memoir' - "memoir" and Ms. Kakutani's name share 237 articles according to a search of the paper's website - she must like this form) - in this case "Margaret Jones's" supposed recording of her life on the 'ghetto' streets of South Central Los Angeles, Love and Consequences. And a few fewer days after Times' editors piled on with a ridiculous Home and Garden visit with "Ms. Jones," the story broke that the book and the life described and reported, were entirely fictional. "Ms. Jones" is really Margaret Seltzer, a rich white girl from the L.A. suburbs who attended an exclusive "Day School." Who gave her up? Turns out it was her sister.

The 'newspaper of record' couldn't figure that out before running not one, but two, stories?

This is not just a question of ethics. There are close ties between the book's editor (from Pearson, one of the world's largest publishers - especially of those 'authoritative' textbooks teachers and professors so rely on) and The Times's book review staff. No surprise there, Manhattan is a small island and "[book editor] McGrath, whom the paper identified as the daughter of former New York Times book review editor and current writer-at-large Charles McGrath," these things are common. Plus, neither the book's editor nor the book's publisher had any incentive to fact check... as everyone from James Frey (still in the top 1,000 on Amazon) to Dave Eggers to their publishers knows, memoirs far outsell literary fiction in the US... more likely to be published, reviewed in the Times, stocked on the shelves at Barnes&Noble if the hook is your great American surviving against the odds backstory rather than the fact that you write well.

But given the current trend for faked memoir - just this week the "running with wolves" holocaust memoir was debunked - don't you think 'journalists' would take a moment and perform those simple high-tech tasks called "search" to decide if something were true? I, after all, have now 'Googled' 27 things just to get to this point in this blog.

Neither is this just a case of American capitalist re-writing. "'American dream' memoir exposed as fake," said The Times of London. We do know that it is important to those protecting the brutal economic system of the United States to get these Horatio Alger stories continuously into print - the anyone can rise up and achieve myth is essential to US Republican Party politics.

But given the current debates in the United States about following a path toward a 'European' conception of democracy or continuing with Reaganesque-McKinley capitalism, you'd guess even The New York Times would be a bit more interested in the 'truths' they promote.

Those ethics and political issues are one thing - but I suspect a bigger problem. We do not teach search and evaluation in our schools. We do not teach digital research and we do not teach people to use digital tools.

Oh yes, these 'reporters' know how to call people. I'll bet Michiko Kakutani even knows how to use a mobile phone. And they know how to look things up in print. I'm sure Mimi Read, who did the Times's puff piece on Jones/Seltzer's home, can pull books off the shelf at the library. There are even reporters at The New York Times who can go outside and interview people. I have seen them do this with my own eyes.

But they do not know how to do the real work - the real time-crunch - can't get anyone on the phone - the people on the street aren't necessarily telling you the truth - kind of fact-checking that is both absolutely necessary in today's 'information age' - it is absolutely possible with a decent skill set. These skills, though, are not taught in high schools, or universities. Surely not to the English-major types who review books, rarely to even journalism majors. And so they are not ingrained, they are not automatic.

And they do not know how to analyze either. Brought up in educational institutions still locked into antique concepts of cognitive authority, Ms. Kakutani believes the reputable publisher (even without the familial connection). Patrick Wilson in 1983 discussed the forms cognitive authority took and noted that (as quoted by Soo Young Rieh), "cognitive authority can be associated with a publisher: a publishing house, a single journal, publication sponsorship, and published reviews, all can acquire this authority. [Another] consideration is found in document type. For example, a standard dictionary has authority in its own right; people do not concern themselves about the names of compilers in reference books."

Wilson's final component is, "the recognition of a text’s contents as plausible or implausible and bestows or withholds authority accordingly," but this is impossible for most contemporary reporters who live lives so far removed from their grittier subjects that Ms. Kakutani probably has less ability to judge the authenticity of a work like Love and Consequences than I have the ability to judge the scientific authenticity of Jim Lovell's Lost Moon.

So these Times reporters can either rely on their old forms of authority - which fail them again and again, from the Airbus A-380 with the standing seats to the run-up to the Iraq War to this memoir nonsense - or they can rely on the newer forms of authority, the preponderance of evidence raised by a great web search. The very fact, for example, that the intersection Ms. Seltzer says she wrote much of her memoir at does not exist (see Google Maps) would have - to a prudent, educated reporter willing to invest 30 seconds - raised the first of many red flags.

But think about this: I hear about teachers and professors all the time who would happily accept a citation from The New York Times ("it's in ink!") but would reject online citations which might prove the Times untrue.

And this: The student in your life need not be an aspiring journalist for this to matter greatly. How will a person know who is telling the truth if they do not know how to rapidly hunt for and evaluate information? If you are buying a car, can you tell the difference between the web information from General Motors, Road&Track, and Consumer Reports? If you are deciding who to vote for can you discover what is accurate? Can you hunt up reliable information on a prospective employer? Or a prospective date? Can you even intelligently investigate and compare various colleges in meaningful ways? Can you look behind the news in ways which help you understand the world? Can you collect and sort a variety of opinions? Do you ever even look beyond the first page of Google results, or know what kinds of search words to add in to get to the information you need?

These are essential life skills. And if the schools you are involved in are not actively teaching these skills, they are failing - no matter what their test scores suggest.

At the end of Ms. Kakutani's review of Love and Consequences she writes - referring to "Ms. Jones," "One of her friends in prison writes her that “so few of us will ever get the chance to see what it’s like outside L.A.,” that she should “be our eyes.” That Ms. Jones has done, and with this remarkable book she has also borne witness to the life in the ’hood that she escaped, conveying not just the terrible violence and hatred of that world, but also the love and friendship that sustained her on those mean streets."

But that turns out not to be what is remarkable. What is remarkable is that this pinnacle of American journalism still does not understand how information moves in this century. What is remarkable is that this review lays bare all the faults of 'the old system' of information processing - that reliance on trusted friends, on credentialed sources, on that 'network' of people from Ms. McGrath to Scooter Libby who have made fools of The New York Times recently.

So next time a teacher tells you that you can't quote Wikipedia or a blog ask about that textbook on the desk - chances are it comes from the same publishing empire which told you that "Ms. Jones" wrote a memoir.

That might make the text book every bit as authoritative as The New York Times - which - it must be pointed out - rarely corrects itself instantly the way Wikipedia does.

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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Carter said...

You make an interesting point. Whether the "inability to Google" on the part of the Times is a result of bad schooling or not, and I doubt that it is, you'd have done better to show exactly how you would have googled that memoir to find out whether it was true or not.

Were I the Times editor, I'd have assigned the review to somebody living in LA, who might have been able to check out some of the stories in the book. I'm not sure Google could have provided the requisite information. If it could have, that's what you should have shown us here.

I don't care much for the print reviews, either, so I wish you'd done a better job of nailing them.

Carter Jefferson, Editor
The Internet Review of Books

irasocol said...

You could have started Googling with - as I suggested - Google Maps. That would have uncovered one untrue thing. Then you might have put in her name and certain features, school names, crime reports, etc. The name "Jones" is brilliant because it makes it far more difficult - you'll be swamped with results - but very few people who have attended, say, college in the past ten years, have no Google trail. And, of course the obvious search - white foster children placed with African-American families in Los Angeles County twenty year ago: A bit of Google Scholar hunting would have brought a million questions into any reporter's mind.

But you are absolutely right. An LA-based, or LA-familiar reporter would have been best, because prior knowledge always makes searches more efficient.

Lisa Romeo said...

You make many good points.

But were you not bothered that in Rich's article about the hoax, she goes straight to Google to verify the actual school Seltzer attended? This is a start, but not the end of a fact check. What ever happened to telephoning the L.A. School District office to verify the school's existence? Keeping track of who one spoke to and when? Reporting her graduation year?

As for fact checking, every reporter knows one easy way to uncover a pack of lies is to start with something simple - like verifying college graduation claims: so easy and fast to do. She claimed to have graduated from a college she did not complete. Any fact checker could have discovered this in under 10 minutes. Start there, find a lie, and this tips off the agent/publisher right away that there may be a problem.

I agree no college graduate in the last 10 years leaves no Internet trail. And most writers, even those using pen names, are all over the web in some way or another. It's a rare writer who publishes a memoir without having published an article or essay somewhere online.

irasocol said...

Lisa - Google should never be taught as "an end" - it is simply one very good possible beginning. It leads you other places. But most college students I know have no idea of when to jump to Google Scholar, or the Blog Search, or the Map Search, or when to leap into library databases or other sources. I see horrendous search skills even among graduate students, and especially among typical K-12 American teachers.

And this is vital because you are right. Any decent fact checker familiar with basic search tools could have checked out this "author" in 10 minutes. The fact that no one at The New York Times seems to either have these skills or knows when to use them, says volumes about what is not being taught in schools.