You know it’s true: Snopes.com deserves journalism’s highest honor.
Last week was a great time for news — fake news, that is. Misinformation is spreading faster than measles in a colony of anti-vaccine nudists, so the time has come for something long overdue: a Pulitzer for Snopes.com.
This weekend Jim Romenesko pointed to nytimes.com.co, which had several of my Facebook friends fooled with claims about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. There are many other purveyors of similar bushwa. In the last several weeks, it seems as if every one of them has bamboozled at least one of my friends.
Yours too, I imagine. Remember, though: Most of my friends are journalists, practicing, retired, or in recovery. These are smart, skeptical people. So smart that I have to think twice every time before I add a comment noting the fakery, and even then I usually hedge: “You know this is fake, right?” Alas, the answer every time has been, no, they didn’t.
I can sniff out a fake site easily, but maybe that’s because I’ve been immersed in the internet since the days of dial-up bulletin boards. And I spent years dealing with commenters, so I distrust basically everything I read online. The problem isn’t just the fake-for-fun sites; it’s also the “real” sites that exaggerate to fit their biases, or pass along phony stories without trying to trace them back to their roots, or waddle back and forth along the narrow line between not bothering to check and just making stuff up.
Just this weekend, a former colleague whom I highly respect as a newsman posted a complaint about the Army forcing U.S. soldiers to fast during Ramadan. The source: A Weekly Standard piece repeating, without a hint of awareness, a bit of nonsense that Snopes.com had punctured awhile ago.
No sooner did I add a comment explaining that then I turned to Twitter and found this retweeted by one of the folks I follow:
My BS detector pinged loudly. Sure enough, Snopes.com came to the rescue again — as it has for me time and time again. The time and effort Snopes puts into deflating puffed-up stories puts a lot of traditional newsrooms to shame. It deserves the honor of a Pulitzer.
Snopes isn’t alone in tackling this crap, and its focus on the Sisyphean task of rolling away one story at a time leaves room for others to try to get at the problem root and branch, as in BuzzFeed’s thorough takedown of The King of Bullsh*t News. But it’s the Snopes approach that has created a huge database of busted hoaxes, allowing smarty-pants like me to do more on Facebook than just post “Can this really be true?”
There is precedent for a Snopes Pulitzer. PolitiFact got one for its rambling, tortuously reasoned ratings of politicians. Snopes, on the other hand, keeps its stories short, its judgments simple, its range wide. Even though Snopes takes on topics a lot less serious than PolitiFact’s usual beat, the Snopes folks don’t stoop to something as silly as a “Pants on Fire” rating. For Snopes, there is no greater condemnation than to be labelled “false.” Which is as it should be.
Barbara and David Mikkelson, the Snopes founders, are doing the kind of public service that every newsroom should. They deserve journalism’s highest honor. It’s time. It’s time for a #SnopesPulitzer.