Flag this one: A fumble for big-time journalism

New York City awoke yesterday to a mystery. Two American flags that normally fly from the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge had been replaced by two flags that had been bleached nearly white. The stars and stripes were visible at close range, but the flags looked solid white from a distance.

The bridge is under 24-hour surveillance, so it was difficult to determine how the stunt had been pulled off. A Twitter account, Bike Lobby, stepped up to claim credit with this tweet:

bbridge

Not long thereafter, both the Associated Press and the New York Daily News reported that Bike Lobby was claiming credit for the flag heist. This is the same Bike Lobby that earlier posted this tweet:

tour

Less than a minute’s worth of research would have verified that, like the Onion and Andy Borowitz, Bike Lobby is engaged in a time-honored American tradition – parody.

There’s nothing subtle about the account’s intent. Here’s the ID from Bike Lobby’s home page:

bikelobby

 

It’s a parody account, having fun with biking and life’s little foibles. In an effort to save face, the Daily News amended its story to say that Bike Lobby joked about switching the flags, and the AP withdrew the story.

A Bike Lobby tweet from later that day said it all:

factcheck

 

A friend of mine – a scientist by training and profession – told me recently that for any story he truly cares about, he’s decided that the only way to get to the bottom of it is to locate the source documents for himself, read them, and come to his own conclusions. This could be congressional testimony, a scientific study or a report about a train crash.

The problem, of course, is that with many stories we care about, getting to the sources quickly is not possible. We can’t immediately get to source material about the crash/bombing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. We can’t quickly get to the bottom of the basis of allegations that a sports figure is doping. We have to rely on the media to get the story and get it right.

Joseph Pulitzer was famous for his three rules of journalism: Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. The harm done by this incident didn’t take lives, but it’s one more self-inflicted blow against journalistic credibility. You might think it’s funny, but it’s one of the saddest days for journalism I’ve seen.

Meantime, here’s what USA Today is reporting about the incident today. It will be interesting to see whether New York ever determines who actually switched the flags.

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