Web of Lies

December 13, 2007, 3:13 PM UTC

So this assassin masquerading as an opinion columnist calls me from a very large newswire that would be well known to you. I’m not going to say what it is because the person in question has no responsibility whatsoever to the truth and is picked up on all the aggregators.

“Hello,” he says, “This is Harvey Brayer,” which of course is not his name, although it might be, “and I’d like to know if your company has a comment on the new acquisition you made recently of Barfinger Industries,” which of course is not the question he asked, but you get the picture.

“New acquisition?” I say to the guy. The first thing I notice is the way he says his name, like he’s very impressed with it and I should be too. I’ve heard his name. I’m not impressed. “We made the acquisition of Barfinger in September. That’s not really what I would call new.”

“Well,” says Brayer, “it’s new to me and I’m just getting around to it, so I’d like a comment.” Then he proceeds to lay out a question that is clearly based on a horrendous set of assumptions that we would fiercely contest.

“I’ll get back to you with something rather formal on that,” I tell the guy. “Do you have any other questions for me about the deal?”

“Nothing I need to ask YOU about,” he sort of snarls, “Perhaps you don’t know me, but I’m leading expert on this sort of thing,” he adds.

“I know who you are,” I reply. “I’ll get back to you in a couple of hours.”

The thing about people in business is that we’re businesslike. Somebody like this guy asks us a question and we actually try to give him an honest answer in real time. So a few of us get together, including our General Counsel, and give him a lengthy, detailed and truthful response, not necessarily one he would agree with, coming at it with a formed opinion loaded with animus, but one that should probably be taken seriously, since he asked for it.

I’m going to cut to the chase here. Yesterday the piece appeared online, at the site I will not disclose but whose name is widely trusted among sober and discerning web cruisers. It is not only horrendously hostile, it is also wrong in perhaps a dozen places, and our response, which took a few hours of everybody’s time to formulate, is reduced to half a sentence, tossed away at the end of a paragraph somewhere in the middle.

Now, it is true that the column of this wheezebag in question is clearly labeled as Opinion on the site. There is even a disclaimer. But that kind of stuff means very little on the web. We were lucky. By the end of the day only one major aggregator had picked it up and run it somewhere on a crowded front page. But lies and truth live cheek by jowl on the Internet. There is no filter for the facts. There is no editor to complain to. No corrections are issued. And contrary to what you might think, given the strange, garbled nature of information in the digital realm, everybody sort of believes everything they read. Why not? It’s not manipulated the way it is in the analog world! It’s out there where the truth can get to you unfettered and free! Except, you know… so can lies.

This week I got an email from an old friend/adversary of mine who has worked for his newspaper for about a generation. The man was a terror. When he got onto something, he was like a junkyard pooch, wouldn’t let it go, dug around it, pulled it out of the earth, trotted around with it like a trophy. Besieged his poor targets with incessant phone calls and requests for clarification and comment. What a pain he was. He’s taking a buyout at the end of the year. And boy, am I going to miss him.

He will be replaced by one more citizen journalist, online bloviator or professional aggregator with a funny hat who kind of gets things the way they sort of think they might be or wish they were in order to stick it to somebody. My only wish is that I’m out of this game by the time the whole thing, like the tower of Babel long ago, comes to its inevitable destination.

Then I can just do this full time and finally and completely become one of them. What a relief that will be!