'A sad day for journalism'
Publish date: 19 April 2017
Issue Number: 1679
Diary: Legalbrief eLaw
As societies around the world grapple with ways to combat fake news, the Huffington Post South Africa has found itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Legalbrief reports that it chose to publish an article entitled ‘Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?’ as the country grapples with ways to deal with deep-rooted racial tensions. The article went viral around the world after members of the conservative media in the US started linking to it on Twitter and in online articles on websites such as Breitbart.com. The posting of the piece was initially defended by HuffPost SA’s editor, Verashni Pillay, but it was withdrawn on Friday after it was established that the author (‘Shelley Garland’) probably did not exist. A report on the Politicsweb site notes that it was subsequently established that the company had fallen for a race hoax after the author – a self-described white male from Johannesburg who requested continued anonymity – contacted the Renegade Report on CliffCentral.com to explain how he had pulled it off. In the article, ‘Garland’ claimed that white men had been responsible for various setbacks to the progressive cause over the past few years – including Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the victory of the DA in a number of metros in last year’s local government elections in SA. ‘She’ suggested one solution to the problem of continued white male influence was to deny white men the vote over a generation. On Sunday, the real author of the article reached out to Roman Cabanac and Jonathan Witt of the libertarian online radio programme, the Renegade Report, explaining how he had pulled off the hoax. He added: ‘Saying white men should be stripped of the franchise is absurd, as well as racist and sexist, and the Huffington Post should be ashamed for publishing such regressive tripe. White men, should not be ashamed of who they are, and nor should anyone else, no matter their race or gender.’
‘This has been hugely damaging not only to the Huffington Post South Africa brand but also to Media24. Responsible journalism is at the heart of what we do; it’s the currency we trade in. In an era of fake news‚ I know only too well that our editors spend an inordinate amount of time checking the veracity of information before they publish. When our systems fail‚ we’re not just alarmed‚ we’re outraged. This is a sad day for journalism‚’ said Media24 CEO Esmaré Weideman. A TimesLIVE report notes that Media24's Andreij Horn said the incident was being thoroughly investigated. ‘As a company we make an enormous investment to ensure quality journalism‚ precisely because we know that trust is non-negotiable.’ In an interview on radio show Talk @ Nine with Karima Brown‚ Pillay said that no identity checks were previously done on blogs carried by the publication. ‘We're in an environment where there is an onslaught on the news. In this environment, we should definitely start doing identity checks‚’ she said. She said she now believed that the blog may have fallen short of the SA press code's standards and that it had been submitted to the press ombudsman for analysis. The DA's John Steenhuisen joined the conversation‚ calling for Pillay's resignation. ‘I think that the credibility of Huffington Post has been completely undermined by this. Not even the most basic of fact-checking was done,’ Steenhuisen is quoted in the report as saying.
In a Calling Through The Fog analysis, Tom Eaton reflects on the absurdity of the article. ‘If you’d recovered from choking on your coffee and clicked the most-read story, you would have discovered that it was, in fact, an opinion piece about the dangers of fake news. Geddit? See what they did there? See how they showed how easy it is to fall for clickbait by, er, well, engaging in some primo clickbaiting? In other words, Pillay and HuffPo SA are already experienced clickbaiters, and when Garland’s piece found international traction they were ready to cash in. Within a day, Pillay had written a piece called “This Blog On White Men Is Going Viral. Here’s Our Response”. In it, she listed some of the vilest responses the original post had received. Inevitably, it also elicited a flood of clicks. At HuffPo SA it wasn’t just Easter: it was Christmas, too. Sipho Hlongwane, head of the blogging division (or as professional writers call it, “the Helping Destroy Actual Journalism By Getting Amateurs To Write For Free And Thereby Keeping Rates So Low That Nobody Can Afford To Be A Journalist” division) was beside himself at all the clicks. According to Pillay, they “will hold discussions on putting in place even better quality controls”. Given the fact that they have just published a highly controversial, probably divisive piece, without having a clue who wrote it (or in the interests of which paymasters it was written), I have to ask about their “even better quality controls”: even better than what? Is Pillay planning to enlist a team of squirrels to do fact-checking, as opposed to the team of air molecules she’s been using until now? It’s tempting to roll one’s eyes and laugh, or to dismiss this because it was “just a blog”, but Pillay and her team have done enormous damage to causes I’m sure they care about deeply.’