< Anatomy of a Mistake


Friday, February 15, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  On February 3rd, the Washington Post splashed a big above-the-fold page one Sunday story by reporter Cecilia Kang that led with this: “The Federal government wants to create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cell phone bill every month.”

Free public Internet access was a story so tantalizing that many other news outlets instantly ran with it. The article was paraphrased and linked all over the Internet, drawing the attention of Ars Technica writer Jon Brodkin. When he read the piece, he noticed one little problem.

JON BRODKIN:  The entire thing is basically false because the FCC isn't creating any wireless networks. What it’s actually doing is freeing up a little extra spectrum, which are wireless airwaves that could be used for wireless Internet networks. But someone outside of the government likely would have to build them, and there’s just, you know, very little reason to think that the networks would be so expansive and broad that everyone would be able to get access or replace their home Internet connections or, or their cell phone bills.

BOB GARFIELD:  It wouldn’t have taken a whole lot to realize that what Kang was describing was really just the latest iteration of policy formation and not nearly as expansive or juicy as Kang described. What would it have taken to find out that she missed the boat?

JON BRODKIN:  You have to have an understanding of what's already happening because this story didn't specify what the actual process was. He was talking about a technology called white spaces and yet, it never mentioned the phrase “white spaces.” I've covered this, so when I read it after a few minutes I was able to sort of think it out, but a lot of the reporters who saw it and just ran with the story, they didn’t have that background to know that it wasn't what it seemed, and  they didn't check either. I don’t know why they didn’t check.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now Jon, in doing your verifying [LAUGHS] you ran into this weird rabbit hole where you spoke to the FCC and then you spoke to the ombudsman at the Post and heard completely opposite things.

JON BRODKIN:  I emailed the ombudsman at the Post. I got a response that said the FCC confirmed to the Post that their story was correct. But I talked with a couple of people at the FCC.

BOB GARFIELD:  At the highest levels.

JON BRODKIN:  At the highest levels who confirmed that the Post story was wrong, and they were interested in getting the correct story out there. They told me, you know, we, we never told the Post that their story was correct.

BOB GARFIELD:  The Post story suggested an Internet “free lunch” that captured the imagination of a lot of people, to the point that once it was thoroughly debunked it, it still didn't go [LAUGHS] away.

JON BRODKIN:  It kept spreading.

BOB GARFIELD:  Tell me about the petition.

JON BRODKIN:  There's a petition on a site called watchdog.net. It is titled, “Tell FCC Don't Back Down on Nationwide Free Wi-Fi! Exclamation point. The funniest thing about the petition is there is actually a sentence that begins with the, the words “Facts are facts.”

BOB GARFIELD:  [LAUGHS] Now, some news organizations took the line dangled in the water by the Washington Post and ran with it. Some realized their mistake and did the right thing. You have pointed out Mashable's approach to dealing with the error.

JON BRODKIN:  Mashable is a tech website, and their first story was wrong, just like everyone else. But the reporter who wrote it, once he realized, wrote a completely new follow-up story, saying the government is not creating this free public Wi-Fi network. And Mashable also apologized for his earlier coverage. A lot of other news organizations didn't do that.

BOB GARFIELD:  And among those that didn't do that is the Washington Post itself. What did the Post do?

JON BRODKIN:  They wrote a follow-up story that was titled, I believe, “Five Things to Know about Free Public Wi-Fi.”  It didn’t really clarify much. I believe in ran on page fourteen, whereas the first story ran above the fold in page one, and the first story is still up and it, it has not been changed at all.

The problem with that is a lot of the incorrect articles out there are still linking to that first story, so people reading the article and following the links, they won't get the correction.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, you spoke to Cecilia Kang, What did she have to say about this fiasco?
JON BRODKIN:  Well, our conversation is private but I, I think I can say that she seemed to understand that the story was wrong, or at least that it led to a repetition of a story that was wrong, and she was very interested in setting the record straight. And then she posted the second story, which sort of clarify things but didn’t really correct it.

BOB GARFIELD:  So what was called for in this case?

JON BRODKIN:  I think a clear correction at the top of the first story should have been done immediately because there actually is a tiny grain of truth in the original story. If everything goes right, some access to Wi-Fi could be expanded. Maybe some of that could be free. There is a story to tell about that process, and that could have been done in a follow-up, if they had wanted to spend more time on it.

BOB GARFIELD:  Yeah, so one last questionShould cancel my Verizon Fios service?

JON BRODKIN:  Only if you want to go off the grid.

BOB GARFIELD:  [LAUGHS] All right, Jon. Thank you very, very much.

JON BRODKIN:  Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:  Jon Brodkin writes for Ars Technica.

Neither the writer of the Washington Post article nor any Washington Post editor agreed to be interviewed but did say, quote, “The Washington Post stands by our story.” The FCC declined to comment on the record.


Jon Brodkin

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Bob Garfield