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Vanity Fair reporter freak-out (googleusercontent.com)
118 points by apress 2167 days ago | hide | past | web | 74 comments | favorite

This is a good example of why specialists shouldn't talk to the media. Generally, the interests of (for example) the New York Times are opposed to the interests of (for example) a particle physicist. The incentive structure of mainstream dead-tree media is aligned against producing accurate summaries of specialized information. There are some good parts and some bad parts to this. The bad parts, though, are sufficiently bad that if manipulating the media isn't your actual job, you're probably better off outsourcing that task to a trusted third party. This is basically the same as talking to lawyers and the police: they will lie to you. There will always be some technical exception so that they can tell themselves and the people higher in their authority structure that they weren't really lying, but no, from the perspective of a layperson, they're liars. They lie all the time. So you need to either be the sort of person who can cope with that and tell them the lies in return that will get something resembling your actual views and statements into their publication, or you need a specialist - just like with talking to lawyers - on your side to do that job for you.

Never count on a reporter to act in good faith any more than you would count on that from the police or from a lawyer. They will disembowel you.

This advice is much less applicable, happily, to technical publications in your field, or to 'citizen journalism,' but you still have to be cautious there. The major difference is that with technical publications or citizen journalists, you may have some actual leverage, and they may have some idea what you're talking about. You have no leverage, as a specialist, over the NYT, so they don't care what harm they do to you - what the heck are you going to do to them? And the average reporter for, say, Fox News, doesn't know what the heck, say, Bruce Schneier is talking about. They are worse than laypeople, actually, because they have an incentive to misunderstand.

Don't talk to the mainstream media. They will lie to you, and they are not your friends.

My absolute favorite example of a reporter willfully twisting words is the following.

A reporter was trying to interview my mother about my sister. My mother said, "It's not that we don't think you're important but ...". This wound up in print as, "It's...that we dont think you're important."

Remember, it is the job of the media to get a compelling story out there. They don't care about the truth. They don't care about informing people. They want to create interesting stories that suck people in, and punish people who fail to give them access to information that they wanted (whether or not they had any right to pry).

When we see subjects that we understand misreported in the media, we invariably cringe. When you see subjects you don't know anything about reported in the media, your default assumption should be that if you knew the subject better, you would cringe, and the only reason you're not cringing is that you don't know better.

In every case where I read or viewed a news story on a subject I had specialist or insider knowledge of, I've been dumbstruck by how much journalists get wrong. Simple facts have been mixed up. Statements that I gave or heard first-hand have been misquoted. Terms and pseudo-jargon are misapplied, or made up out of thin air. So I absolutely do assume that most of the stories where I do not have special knowledge are just as wildly inaccurate. I think of journalists as chatty laypeople with an unsuspecting audience.

Not that I think it's an easy job to have to always be talking, while not knowing what you're talking about. I just think it's wrong that it's always portrayed as delivering facts, when it must be closer to hastily jotting down a lot of disjoint words, phrases, and half-quotes, and then trying to reconstruct a plausible-sounding story from it later.

A reporter was trying to interview my mother about my sister. My mother said, "It's not that we don't think you're important but ...". This wound up in print as, "It's...that we dont think you're important."

Honestly, whoever did this is a failure at their job. This can't be a common practice because it's so blatantly wrong. Even Reddit commentors don't get upvoted for crap like this.

So far as I can tell, you're simply wrong. So far as I can tell, this is pretty much how standard journalism works.

As a newspaper journalist, I can say: You're simply wrong. That isn't standard practice, isn't taught in J-school, and will most likely get you fired on the spot from even a marginally reputable publication.

I've been reported-on by Wired News. Same guy who invented the claim that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. He wasn't fired for either story.

Did he explicitly make you say the direct opposite of what you actually said? Because that's really weird and unusual even when somebody is explicitly lying (as opposed to just mischaracterizing something, which is something people do in conversation all the time).

And is this one guy somehow the "standard"? Because it sounds like you had one or two bad experiences and decided to generalize your feelings to an entire profession. We've all run into a bad ______ who we can't understand how he still has a job, but that doesn't mean ______ as a whole are bad. (Fill in "journalists," "programmers," "waiters," "doctors" or pretty much anything else.)

I'm not familiar with that guy or with Wired's editorial standards in general, but I do think you're being unreasonably broad in a way that you wouldn't be if, say, you'd met a bumbling computer scientist.

I'm sorry, but I have to agree with Eliezer; I've known the details behind a half dozen stories or so personally, and in almost every case in the MSM there have been factual errors reported as truth.

One time is an anecdote; two times starts to be compelling. 6/6 times has a reasonable level of statistical significance.

FWIW, I'm somewhat convinced that a majority of computer programmers would fall under the general umbrella of "bumbling," though I don't think I'd use that term. "Marginally competent" might fit the bill better.

Out of the ~20 interviews I have witnessed and seen written up NONE of them where completely accurate. And I am not talking about simple mistakes, but deliberately spicing things up.

How many marginally reputable publications are still around? I've seen NYT issue retractions before along these lines, no word on whether anyone was sacked for it.

The fact that a newspaper doesn't habitually discuss its HR matters in print is not relevant to whether blatant falsehood is "standard practice" in journalism.

The fact that you saw the retraction should tell you that kind of writing does not meet the paper's standard. Editors don't enjoy writing notices to the effect of "Oops, I totally failed at my job there." They do it because the alternative is an even worse blow to the paper's integrity.

But they're reporters. Getting at the truth, or something close to it, often helps them do their job, but it isn't their job. Their job is getting attention. How that attention is monetised is an ever changing thing, but it's attention not truth that they're after.

How much personal exposure have you had to journalists? They generally are smart enough that they could get a facile grasp on a technical issue in the limited time they have if they really wanted to, but it's rarely a wise use of their time. Human interest, nearest cliche, drama, all of these bring more eyeballs. High quality journalism will get you better quality (richer) attention but there are a lot more people who read US News, or the Sun, or Die Bild than read quality press.

tl;dr Journalists sell eyeballs, not truth

I have no idea how common that is. However that incident taught me why people say, "No comment" to the media. Short. Sweet. Can't be misquoted out of context.

Ah, but they have a way around that as well.

Journalist: btilly, would you ever rape a child?

btilly: No comment.

Headline: btilly refuses to rule out raping children

Next week they'll ask whether you're running for president, and if you don't comment on that then the cover of Time will be a picture of your face with the caption "Is America Ready For a Child-Raping President?"

Ah yes. The Glenn Beck approach.

I'm very glad to have never had to deal with it.

"Do you agree?" - "No ..."

That just sounds illegal. I'm not sure how, but intuitively, it just seems that something like that would be illegal.

Some countries have institutions that you can forward a complaint to, but the result usually doesn't carry any significant impact other than acknowledging the transgression.

Depends on the country. In Canada, it is illegal for news organizations to report on anything less than the truth. However, this is why these same organizations are lobbying for this law to be repealed. In the US, no such law exists, ala FOX may get away with any lie they choose as long as they fall short of libel (unless the individual is a public official).

In Japan, there is evidence of collusion between news organizations and both political parties/figures and corporate sponsors. This leads to actual censorship in the news. So while blatant lies such as those found in Vanity, may not be a prevalent, it is clear that in some countries stories important news would never even have the ring of full disclosure.

This happened in Canada.

The truth was reported. My mother said that. She could not honestly claim to have been misquoted.

The quote was slimy, misleading, manipulative, and many other derogatory things. However the one thing that it was not was illegal.

Moving periods around inside of a direct quote is not the truth.

When quoting it is permissible to use ... to indicate that you omitted part of the sentence. Standard grammar guides also say that when you end your sentence on a quote, the punctuation mark should move inside of the quotes. Even if it wasn't originally the end of the sentence.

That is exactly what the journalist in question did. The omitted section of sentence was the word not, and it appeared at the end of a sentence.

I don't have a style manual in front of me, but here are some sources that disagree.

If words are left off at the end of a sentence, and that is all that is omitted, indicate the omission with ellipsis marks (preceded and followed by a space) and then indicate the end of the sentence with a period … . http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/marks/ellipsis.htm

The Chicago Manual of Style says that "other punctuation [besides the ellipsis, that is] may be used on either side of the three ellipsis dots if it helps the sense or better shows what has been omitted." Then, later, it says "When the last part of a quoted sentence is omitted and what remains is still grammatically complete, four dots — a period [or exclamation/question mark] followed by three ellipsis dots — are used to indicate the omission." And finally, "Three dots — no period — are used at the end of a quoted sentence that is deliberately and grammatically incomplete." http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/grammarlogs2/grammarl...

Wikipedia implies strongly that The Chicago Manual of Style, as well as the MLA and the Bluebook, have different syntactic rules for using ellipsis within a sentence versus at the end of the sentence. That makes no sense if Retric is correct in his/her claim about ellipsis only being licit at the end of a sentence.


Also, I have no CMS subscription, but here's a public-facing FAQ that seems relevant:


These sources appear to confirm my uneducated belief, which agrees with btilly, that ellipses may be used to mark any omission, of any size, including within a sentence or spanning sentences (wp's comment on CMOS implies omitting entire paragraphs is legal).

In that case it is likely that I've misremembered that bit of it. After all this is an incident that happened over 25 years ago.

But I guarantee that the journalist deliberately omitted the word "not" to completely reverse the meaning of the sentence.

In Canada, it is illegal for news organizations to report on anything less than the truth.

Not exactly -- it's against the law to publish facts that the publisher knows to be false. So the standard isn't truth, it's honesty.

It's very hard to prove a journalist is being deliberately misleading. So it's only been used in the case of Holocaust deniers and even then the Supreme Court ruled that the law was not compatible with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government has shifted the false news law to being a regulatory requirement for broadcasters, but it's unclear whether this isn't still unconstitutional.

FOX News, in my estimation, does seem to cross the line when it comes to repeating statements they know (or should know) to be false, often over the course of several days. So I can see why they want even the regulation withdrawn.

More details: http://openmedia.ca/blog/false-news-and-crtc-who-asked-what-...

It's almost definitely a joke. It's ridiculous. Would never happen.

Sorry, but it happened in the mid-80s. The newspaper it happened in was The Victoria Times-Colonist. The journalist in question just would not give up trying to get access to my family, and in the end we wound up changing phone numbers 3 times.

In short, you'd be amazed at what happens to the families of movie stars.

"Remember, it is the job of the media to get a compelling story out there. They don't care about the truth."

Both Reuters and Al-Jazeera come across as attempting to be as objective as possible about the stories they cover. In fact, the former has been criticized for the policy of objective language.

I've never had the experience of interacting with Reuters or Al-Jazeera. Based on my experiences with other forms of media, I am pessimistic that they live up to their attempted reputation, but do agree that their product does seem more informative.

It depends on the subject matter. Reuters and Al-Jazeera are by no means objective on all subjects -- the obvious example is Al-Jazeera and anything to do with Israel. (They immediately begin frothing at the mouth and spouting angry gibberish, just like, e.g., Fox news does in the US when reporting on Democrats.) But Al-Jazeera has useful reporting on other subjects.

I think the key is to try to figure out who's useful for what subject matter. Vanity Fair is probably not reliable for anything.


I'm not really seeing this frothing at the mouth you're speaking of, particularly when you leave out Opinion articles rather than reporting. (But HN is really not the place for this conversation...)

Supposedly they tone it down in their english publication. I only speak english though, and Al Jazeera FUD is hardly unheard of over here, so who knows.

It is certainly harder for the FUD to be unheard of when someone makes a point of spreading it.

If others haven't had the same experience w.r.t Al-Jazeera, it's possible I got confused about reporting vs. opinion.

Reuters has been caught faking photos.

Indeed: http://zombietime.com/reuters_photo_fraud/

Though it seems that the photos were faked by low-level partisans on the ground, not by high-on decree from Reuters itself.

Reuters isn't significantly better or worse than anyone else, in the scheme of things, but it's a bad idea to have too much faith in any news outlet, regardless of how sophisticated it may currently make you sound when you brag about how you get all your news from Al Jazeera. (Personally I get all my news from Taiwanese animations.)

Serious wow at Lebanon war photo fraud. That is just appalling.

When they ask if they can record the interview, ask if you can record the interview. Maybe the fact that a simple link can prove they are distorting things will make them more honest.

Here's the graf in the VF piece that has Langner so upset:

“If I did not have the background that I had, I don’t think I would have had the guts to say what I said about Stuxnet,” Langner says now, finishing his second glass of wine during lunch at a Viennese restaurant in Hamburg. Langner studied psychology and artificial intelligence at the Free University of Berlin. He fell into control systems by accident and found that he loved the fiendishly painstaking work. Every control system is like a bespoke suit made from one-of-a-kind custom fabric—tailored precisely for the conditions of that industrial installation and no other. In a profession whose members have a reputation for being unable to wear matching socks, Langner is a bona fide dandy. “My preference is for Dolce & Gabbana shoes,” he says. “Did you notice, yesterday I wore ostrich?” Langner loves the attention that his theories have gotten. He is waiting, he says, for “an American chick,” preferably a blonde, and preferably from California, to notice his blog and ask him out.

This looks bad in isolation. But the piece is enormous; more than 60 grafs long. Langner's complaint makes it sound like a hit piece. It's not; it's simply using those (apparently misleading) details to add some color. The article is ostensibly not even about Langner, even though it quotes and discusses him warmly throughout.

I don't want to sound like I'm defending bad reporting, but the VF articles has substantive concerns about Langner as well --- for instance, his prevalence as a authoritative source for lots of other journalism about Stuxnet --- and one way to dodge that is to redirect attention to stupid stuff like what kinds of shoes he really prefers.

Is "graf" an actual term for a paragraph? Or is this some new Californian thing I haven't noticed?

Google [graf hed lede]. I use them, as I think many other people do, because they're very easy to type, and you knew what it meant without being told.

"Tk" also another great journalism shortcut; it's like "XXX" in code --- easy to search for and fix later.

I'm in Chicago.

Interesting, I'd never heard of anything like this. Thanks!

It's long-time journalistic slang for paragraph.

I pretty much only see it in editorial communication in my day job -- rarely do I see it something like a comment on a site like YC. Sort of feel like it's distracting, but whatever, not a big deal, I guess some people like the sound of it.

Thanks for pointing that out. Here's the full article for context: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/04/stuxnet-2...

"My experience is that journalists report on the nearest-cliche algorithm, which is extremely uninformative because there aren’t many cliches, the truth is often quite distant from any cliche, and the only thing you can infer about the actual event was that this was the closest cliche. I should write a separate post on this at some point.

It is simply not possible to appreciate the sheer awfulness of mainstream media reporting until someone has actually reported on you. It is so much worse than you think."

-Eliezer Yudkowsky, http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/01/predictible-fakers.htm...

On the other hand, if you hang out with journalists you'll start to see it from their side as well.

They've got some short deadline to write a few thousand words on some topic they don't really understand and don't really care about, either... and the consequences for rushing out a just-good-enough article are pretty minimal.

Sound familiar? It reminds me of high school, and dashing off some crappy just-good-enough essay on the night before it was due. Journalists (or the vast majority thereof) are stuck in an endless loop of having to write two crappy high school essays on different subjects every day. I don't envy them.

Your idealist view of the perfect article is something that quickly goes out the window, when you begin to write for a magazine or newspaper.

The character limit on articles alone is enough to break the hopes of many people.

This mirrors the story of McChrystal's treatment by Rolling Stone (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-runaway-genera...). In both cases reporters pull specialists who are unaware and unprepared for the perils of such interviews to uncharted territory and then benefit from the results. I bet they can't pull such a fast one to one who's seasoned, e.g. Lady Gaga.

Google Cache -- English roots of langner are returning blank pages: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:tPFggJc...

Even this link is not working for me. Did anyone save the text?

edit: https://gist.github.com/989727

That page comes out black in my browser, but the text is there, just with the wrong color. Select parts of the page and you will see it.

I've seen similarly bizarre malfeasance by a reporter from one of the most famous newspapers.

Their fact checking is completely useless. They don't check any of the most important or fundamental claims, only the very trivial. Editors apparently don't care or are incompetent.

In the case I'm intimately familiar with the reporter made no claim or attempt at impartiality. He was actively hostile and came close to threatening. He was on a witch hunt and continued his vendetta over a couple years of trumped up articles until he realized no one else bought his bullshit.

I pray for the day when shitty journalists can't hide under the umbrella of a "respected" brand like Vanity Fair. It's too much power with no effective checks or balances.

For future reference: If you think you're being set up in an interview, in many cases you can legally record the interview using a voice recorder app on your phone without telling the other party.

The only US states that require all-party notification of a conversation being recorded are:

California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington.

All other states allow you to record a conversation without notifying the other party provided you are party to the conversation. If the conversation crosses state lines, Federal law applies which only requires one party to know the call is being recorded.


I'm struggling to see how that would have helped this person. The VF story is in fact not a hit piece, and involved what appears to be a multi-day interview. The audio recording required to shoot down the tiny fraction of this story Langner objects to would be very boring listening indeed --- because, of course, you'd have to trawl the whole thing to verify that he didn't crack wise about California blondes or D&G shoes.

We rag on PR people a lot, but this is definitely a case where a tech company needed a good PR person or good PR company to back them up.

A PR rep being in the room during the interviews never would have let this get out of hand in the way that it did, and they would have framed the interview better to suit the tech company. This is just a case of an unsophisticated tech guy being trodden on by an experienced journalist in order to suit the journalists goals for the story.

PR might be 90% useless now, but there are good PR people out there who could have helped in this case.

Btw I am a huge fan of VF but I thought the Stuxnet piece was weak. I am surprised that some of the more experienced tech journalists are not all over the story releasing articles, books, touring lecture, etc. the mainstream mass market would eat up this story in a hurry (movie deal!)

The Atlantic put Mark Bowden (for crying out loud) on Conficker and turned in a clunker. I think the problem is that a narrative journalist's instincts and pressures aren't compatible with stories like Stuxnet and Conficker.

I remember that - it was terrible. I was thinking more like Steven Levy for Wired or even Bruce Sterling. Wired have yet to do a feature on Stuxnet

or Clive Thompson for NYT Magazine - his tech writing has been excellent, particularly the Netflix prize[1] and his coverage of privacy and security issues[2]

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/23/magazine/23Netflix-t.html?...

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/03/magazine/03intelligence.ht...

The article in question, A Declaration of Cyber-War:


And its HN submission (1 comment):


There have been times in the distant past where I was contacted by people from the mainstream media for interviews or TV appearances on well known shows. I always politely turned them down, because I feared similar exaggerations and distortions to those described in this article. Anything connected with AI or robotics tends to be reported on very poorly and in a highly sensationalised manner, and I didn't want to end up being misrepresented or be portrayed as a crude stereotype.

There is a good book, Mediasmart,


by a reporter whose work I used to see on my local TV news, explaining how subjects of news stories can turn the tables on reporters by understanding more of the news business. The tips in the book are frank and useful--including sometimes declining to be interviewed.

Here's the article formatted in ViewText: http://viewtext.org/article?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwebcache.google....

More interesting (in my mind) is - why are we reading this out of the google cache? The original site doesn't seem to be up. What's the back-story there?

There's a remarkable amount of "dramablogging" on HN lately.

New here, are you? :)

I wonder how commonplace this is across media outlets.

gotta be a little oblivious to think that vanity fair is interested in stuxnet

It sounded like he was just hopeful that he could get the word out about Stuxnet. Plus, he mentions that Vanity Fair wasn't even available on German news stands, so perhaps he didn't know what to expect.

VF is in fact currently a bastion of serious long-form narrative journalism. It's hard to take seriously if you have the paper copy stinking up your hands with perfume samples, but it's a serious publication.

How gross of Gross.

This is what happens when the "perception is reality" maxim gets to people's heads.

Vanity Fair: Fact or Fiction?

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