Falling prey to digital snow job


Snowmageddon? More like Snowverkill.

That’s what my Sun colleague and friend Charles Adler memorably called the media prognostications about this week’s “weather bomb” an overreaction of epic, historic (and histrionic) proportions. Like any sensible Winnipegger, Adler could only shake his head about the media’s dire warnings, the unnecessary school and business closures, and the hysterical TV reports. And watch as a manageable dusting of white stuff covered Eastern Canada.

It’s February! We live in Canada, people! It snows here, remember?

But Snowmaggedon raises an interesting subject for debate. To wit: Have our electronic media, in their bid to scoop the competition, got too many stories too wrong, too often? More particularly, has the explosion in new communications technologies (seen on Twitter), and the non-stop news cycle (seen everywhere) created a media environment in which everything is exaggerated?

Jan. 18, 1998 that was the day that the Culture of Exaggeration kicked off in earnest. On that day, a relatively-unknown news aggregator website published a rumour about Newsweek “killing” a story a story about a “23-year-old White House intern” having a “sex relationship” the president of the United States.

Remember that one? That little story blossomed into a full-blown constitutional crisis, one that paralyzed the U.S. government for the next two years. And it started with just a few words on a website.

In time, most Americans came to be utterly sick of the Clinton-Lewinsky story, and punished the president’s GOP inquisitors for raising the matter in the first place. What remains interesting, however, is how the American news media dealt with the crisis.

Terrified about being scooped by websites like The Drudge Report and, later, bloggers and, now, Twitter feeds respected mainstream media organizations started to publish virtually anything, simply to avoid getting beaten to a “story.”

Little or no fact-checking, little or no actual fact-finding. “Reports” about “reports” became the norm. Just get it out there and fervently hope it ends up being sort-of true.

Lucianne Goldberg, one of the Republican operatives who helped to promote the Monica Lewinsky story, once told me in an interview that the Internet, plus the 24-hour news cycle, have conspired to radically change the news-gathering business.

“It’s the speed of the thing,” said Goldberg. “It’s a fact: With the Internet, we can get it on a website and out to a million people in three seconds. And Matt (Drudge) can get it out to more people than that!”

And if it’s inaccurate or exaggerated, or unworthy of serious attention? No matter. At least we didn’t get scooped by the competition.

This Culture of Exaggeration inevitably leads to disinformation, and not just down south, either. A few months ago, the Canadian media reported that former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Burns was dead when, er, he actually wasn’t.

How about widespread claims Fox News owned or controlled the forthcoming Sun News Network when it didn’t, at all? Tens of thousands signed a “Stop Fox News North” petition anyway.

Regular (and regularly erroneous) claims that a federal election is imminent. Scandal-mongering, on a virtually daily basis. And, this panst week, Snowmaggedon. The list, unfortunately, goes on.

Political people, a species with which I am familiar, are not as enthusiastic about the Culture of Exaggeration as you might think. Sure, the sped-up news cycle and the Internet’s progeny, like Twitter and Facebook has made it a lot easier to promote a smear about a political opponent. But that process can work in reverse, too, and with devastating consequences to a person’s career and reputation.

So, as you eyeball Twitter feeds coming out of Egypt, or moment-by-moment accounts of the confrontations in Cairo, keep in mind Snowmageddon.

What you may be seeing, and hearing, may be seeing, and hearing, may not be merely exaggerated.

What you are hearing and seeing, in fact, may be just plain old wrong.

Kinsella is a lawyer, blogs at and will appear regularly on Sun News Network


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