Today is the last Jim-written Morning Jolt until December 27. From all of us to all of you, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a joyful anything else you may celebrate at this time of year.
We constantly argue that the national news media has to be more discerning and wary about stories that crop up on social media and seem a little too perfect. It is increasingly clear that day will not come anytime soon. The coming years will be filled with lurid, even farfetched tales of horrific abuse in public places, and a slow trickle of retractions when the details of the accounts don’t add up.
For starters, history has taught us to be wary of “you won’t believe the offensive message written on this restaurant receipt” stories. The one in New Jersey was a hoax, the one in California was a hoax, and the one in Tennessee is sketchy, with a handwriting expert saying the writing on the receipt doesn’t match the customer’s. The gay slur on the cake from Whole Foods was a hoax. How many openly racist, sexist or homophobic wait staff feel the need to offer a perfectly offensive written statement to someone they’re hoping will tip them? How many customers feel the uncontrollable impulse to leave physical evidence of socially controversial or unacceptable views, simply to lash out at someone who just brought them food?
Surely, the world has genuine hate crimes. But a lot of the most covered ones in recent weeks have turned out to be hoaxes. A Jewish family is not fleeing Lancaster County after a backlash to their complaint about their school’s Christmas play. A drunken man did not threaten to set a Michigan woman’s hijab on fire. The November burning of an African-American church and spray-painting of “Vote Trump” was committed by an African-American parishioner. That Manhattan Muslim teen who claimed she was attacked by three drunks who called her a “terrorist” on the subway while lots of New Yorkers stood and watched? Hoax. (The hoaxer’s sister later went on Facebook and criticized the police for being excessively skeptical: “It became super clear to me these past two weeks that the police’s first instinct is to doubt your story and try to disprove it.”)
That “YouTube prankster” who claimed he was thrown off the plane for speaking Arabic? Other passengers say he was being disruptive and was only thrown off for repeatedly shouting.
There are lesser-covered cases, too:
Vincent Palmer, 27, told detectives he taped a note with racial slurs and the words “KKK” and “Trump” written on it to his ex-girlfriend’s mailbox early Saturday before throwing a brick through her car window and dousing the back seat in gasoline because they were having problems over the custody of their children, according to an arrest report.
In South Philadelphia, a group residents found racist, Nazi and pro-Trump graffiti spray-painted on their homes and cars the morning after the election. The perpetrator was a 58-year-old African-American man.
It’s not just the Left, of course; a New York City firefighter said his house was set aflame because he had a “Blue Lives Matter” flag outside. Earlier this month, he was charged with arson, setting his own house on fire.
Note for all future discussions of hate crimes: Did the victim file a police report? If a victim is strangely resistant to the idea of filing a police report, turn your wariness up a notch. If they say they don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, while simultaneously making a big deal out of it on social media, turn it up another notch. Of course, filing a false police report is a crime, and that makes the stunt a lot more dangerous and potentially consequential for the hoaxer.
It’s not just the political realm; social media is full of hoaxes, fueled by credulous people. U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota will not be open to the homeless on cold nights. Cee Lo Green’s phone did not explode in his hand. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are not posing as being from the gas company and robbing people’s houses during the Christmas season.
We can complain about the media’s eagerness to share and spread implausible tales – completely different from that Macedonian-generated “fake news” on Facebook, right? – but ultimately we need a warier news-consuming public. I fear we’re unlikely to get one.