This Article Has Been Revised to Reflect the Following Correction

Falsity spreads through the Web like a virus, despite the ready availability of fact-correcting antibiotics

5 min read

This Article Has Been Revised to Reflect the Following Correction

Last week, a slew of news outlets (emphasis on “outlets,” as if it were a contraction of “outhouse” and “toilets”) published a story about a man allergic to a particular radio signal. Not just a particular radio frequency, which would be crazy enough, but a particular air interface, a particular protocol, if you will: Wi-Fi signals. No, really. Here's the Daily Mail's headline:

Allergic to wi-fi! How 'electrosmog' leaves Afterlife DJ in agony

I know what you're thinking. Wi-Fi, at least the most popular flavors of it, uses the same 2.4 GHz frequency as cordless phones, garage doors, and the microwave oven that Steve Miller, aka “Afterlife DJ,” probably pops his popcorn in. How could someone be allergic to Wi-Fi and not a phone or microwave using the same frequency?

You shouldn't have to know anything about the IEEE 802.11 standard to instantly see that the story is nonsense, but apparently you do if you if you work for any of the publications that took to the story like a lemming to the sea.

Fox News—you know, the fair and balanced people—took it and ran ( Man Allergic to Wi-Fi, Makes Him Sick, Dizzy, Confused), apparently getting it, like a virus, from The Sun.

This isn't an occasional phenomenon, it seems integral to the Web. But not just the Web, it's probably a story as old as history itself, or at least the 1970s. The national public radio watchdog show, “On The Media,” had a great piece (“Too Good to Check”) this weekend about crazy claims about Walter Cronkite that have been around for decades and that resurfaced on the occasion of his recent death.

Did you know, for instance, that Uncle Walter is so identified with the news business that in Sweden an anchorman is called a "Kronkiter?" And speaking of anchorman, did you know that the word was coined in the '50s to define Cronkite's role on broadcast TV? Turns out, despite what many media eulogies would have you believe, neither of those facts I just asserted are exactly true.

On the Media host Bob Garfield traced the virus's 30-year etiology with the help of Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with the Kronkiter bit. Read me, please, the excerpt from the AP obit.

BEN ZIMMER: Well, the obituary that ran in many newspapers came from The Associated Press. The version that ran in The Chicago Tribune, for instance, said, "Cronkite was the broadcaster to whom the title 'anchorman' was first applied. In Sweden, anchors were sometimes termed “Kronkiters'", that's with a k. "In Holland, they were "Cronkiters.'" That's with a C.

BOB GARFIELD: It scans. I mean, it sort of sounds possible. But what you did was go back to see if it was, you know, true. What did you discover?

BEN ZIMMER: Well, I was not able to discover any evidence in Swedish, Dutch or any other language that news anchors were ever called Kronkiters. So I tried to figure out, well, who started telling this anecdote? And when I first looked, the earliest example I could find was in a 1978 book called Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News, written by Gary Paul Gates, who was at one time a news writer for Cronkite.

Then in 1979, David Halberstam wrote The Powers That Be, and similarly he had, in Sweden, anchormen were known as Kronkiters. It seemed that these were the earliest examples of this story being told. And what I did was I actually contacted Gary Paul Gates to find out where he got the story from, and it turns out he says he got the story from Halberstam.

At least the Web, when it taketh away the truth, can also giveth it. For example, when a responsible publication messes up, it can correct it with lightning speed. And not in some miniscule correction published in an obscure corner of the paper days later that leaves the original nonsense untouched. The corrections can be made to the original article (something as, the Daily Mail, and The Sun have yet to do, by the way), with, hopefully, an editorial note describing the changes-all seven of them, in the case of—speaking of Walter Cronkite—an “appraisal” of the late great newscaster written by New York Times ace appraiser Alessandra Stanley.

Check out the mammoth 200-word correction (numbers added):

An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite's career included a number of errors. (1) In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and (2)referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite's coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30. Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, (3) Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. (4) “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. (5) A communications satellite used to relay correspondents' reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. (6) Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, (7) the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

Correction: All eight corrections. A week later, the Times added yet one more:

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: August 1, 2009 An appraisal on July 18 about Walter Cronkite's career misstated the name of the ABC evening news broadcast. While the program was called “World News Tonight” when Charles Gibson became anchor in May 2006, it is now “World News With Charles Gibson,” not “World News Tonight With Charles Gibson.”

Why stop there? We can get to an even 10 for for the Times on the subject of Cronkite if we count the two—yes, two—separate corrections to its obituary of (as opposed to appraisal for) Der Kronkiter.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 21, 2009 Because of an editing error, an obituary Saturday about the CBS newsman Walter Cronkite misspelled the name of the church in Manhattan where his family plans to hold a private funeral service. It is St. Bartholomew's, not Bartholemew's.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 23, 2009 An obituary on Saturday about Walter Cronkite misidentified the country in which he crash-landed a glider as a United Press correspondent in World War II. It was the Netherlands, not Belgium.

It's a wonderful thing, the Web, a gargantuan fact-checking machine it is. We're lucky to have one. It's just too bad we need one so often, in the era of the Web. Like the pharmacy owner in the Mad Magazine cartoon who sells both chocolate ice cream and acne medication, the Web fuels its own arms war of truth and falsity.

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