A story has been going around this week that a middle school teacher in Maryland had been arrested/committed because he had self-published a couple SF novels which featured a school shooting set 900 years in the future. Naturally this story had the internet up in arms, with everyone from The Atlantic to this blogger crying foul over what was clearly multiple violations of the author's Constitutional rights.
That was truly an incendiary story - or at least it would be had the story actually been true. Much to my chagrin, it is not.
The LA Times followed up on this story; they conducted the basic investigation which (almost) no one else bothered with and discovered that the local reports which sparked the internet outrage were nothing more than a load of hooey.
The LA Times reported that the teacher was detained not for having written the novels but because there were real concerns that he had mental health issues:
"It didn't start with the books and it didn't end with the books," State's Attorney for Wicomico County Matt Maciarello told The Times. "It's not even a factor in what law enforcement is doing now."
Concerns about McLaw were raised after he sent a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County. Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities.
McLaw's attorney, David Moore, tells The Times that his client was taken in for a mental health evaluation. "He is receiving treatment," Moore said.
Because of HIPPA regulations mandating privacy around healthcare issues, he was unable to say whether McLaw has been released.
McLaw's letter was of primary concern to healthcare officials, Maciarello says. It, combined with complaints of alleged harassment and an alleged possible crime from various jurisdictions led to his suspension. Maciarello cautions that these allegations are still being investigated; authorities, he says, "proceeded with great restraint."
What's more, he told The Times, "everyone knew about the book in 2012."
The Maryland Star Democrat has more and specific details, if you're interested.
Not that I am trying to defend my failure to research the story before reporting on it, but it is times like this that I am reminded that Bob Woodward is right to be dismayed at how journalism students are far to dependent on and trusting of the information they found online.
Bob Woodward (as in Woodward and Bernstein, that Bob Woodward, yes) reportedly teaches or taught a seminar at Yale's school of journalism. One of the assignments required the students to read the coverage of the Watergate scandal and writing a paper which described how things would have played out differently in the modern internet era.
The results illustrated what is wrong with the modern state of journalism to a T:
This year, Woodward told me, the students' papers included these statements:
"Nixon would not have been re-elected in 1972. The Watergate cover-up would not have lasted more than a few days."
"With the advancements in the technology of the Internet it would be much easier to unravel the truth. It would have been simple to track down the $50,000 that was withdrawn from the intelligence gathering fund [i.e. Nixon's secret slush fund]."
"There would be hundreds, potentially thousands of people investigating the story. We'd learn from the Internet the details of James McCord's [the lead burglar] military records. With such readily available information, it would have been difficult for the conspirators to deny involvement for as long as they did."
"Along with the advantages the Internet would provide, today's political climate would also lead to the Watergate scandal completely unfolding in a week or two."
"Solid evidence proving their guilt would have spread everywhere on the Internet. As a result, the Nixon Administration would have almost immediately confessed the truth of the scandal."
"Once the connection between the burglars and the Committee to Re-Elect would have been established, other evidence would have trickled in. The online community would have gone into a tweeting frenzy."
Brill told me that of the 15 papers handed in this year, three included lead sentences that said something to the effect of "I would have Googled 'Howard Hunt' and found out that he worked for CREEP, or I would have Googled 'secret fund.'" Hunt handled the White House plumbers burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, and then also organized the bugging of the Democratic National Committee's Watergate headquarters a few months later. Hunt also worked for CREEP, the Committee to Re-elect the President.
After reading these essays, Woodward wrote Brill, "To a person your students have a heart-stopping over-confidence in the quality of the information on the Internet." And to me he added, "There's nothing laughable about this. It's sad."
"I'm not saying you shouldn't use the Internet," Woodward continued. "I'm saying that if you go to the Internet and use it, find human beings who have not yet talked, who have not yet unburdened themselves, and advance the story." Josh Marshall's reliance on his readers to help connect the dots in the Alberto Gonzales/U.S. attorneys firings scandal was a good example, he said. "The Internet assists and does a lot of good things. People helping ferret out a story can be helpful."
You can find more details here (it's worth your time, trust me).
If you've ever wondered why online journalism is so lacking, I think Woodward has the explanation.
Sound bites and click bait sure not the most serious problems with journalism today; the real issue is that so few of us are inclined to do it right.