You may not have noticed, but recently the Huffington Post has been the poster child for lack of journalistic integrity. The actual details may appear to be small to many people, but not to me. HuffPo has made a sloppy journalistic error, publishing a historically inaccurate story, and on a claim many experts have proven wrong. The organization does not seem willing to retract it. I will never trust this source again.
This post will get into the details in a moment, but this is a blog about digital economics, so let’s review the relevant economics. Let’s start with the economics of trust. Trust does not arise out of nowhere. Readers learn to trust a source of information. Said another way, trust arises because a new source invests in accuracy and quality. It is one of the greatest assets of a news source.
Trust is an unusual asset. It possesses an asymmetric property. It takes many little acts to build up its value, and very few bad acts to destroy it. Once lost it is also hard to regain.
As online news sources grabbed the attention of readers there has been concern about the loss of the type of quality reporting found in traditional news outlets. That is why many commentators have wondered whether online news sources like HuffPo could recreate the reputations of traditional newspapers and new magazines, who invested so heavily in journalists with deep knowledge about their topic. So went the adage: A high quality journalist could sniff out a lie or incomplete claim. A high quality reporter would defend the reputation of the news source. Readers trusted those organizations as a result of those investments.
That is also why journalistic integrity receives so much attention by managers in traditional newspapers. There are good reasons why newspapers react severely to ethical lapses and violations, such as plagiarism. Once trust is lost in a reporter, why would a reader trust that organization again? Why would a news organization put its trust further at risk by retaining that reporter? The asymmetries of trust motivate pretty harsh penalties.
So the concern went something like this: online news sources get much of their content for free or for very little money. That could be a problem because these sources do not have the resources to invest in quality reporting. How will they behave when quality suffers? Will readers punish them for lower quality material?
That is what gets us back to HuffPo’s behavior. Its reputation is on the line, but it is not acting as if it recognizes that it has lost my trust and the trust of several other readers. This behavior suggests it has not invested in quality, which aligns with the fears just expressed.
Now for the detail: HuffPo published a multipart history of email that is historically inaccurate. Yes, you read correctly. More specifically, a few of the details are correct, but those are placed next to some misleading facts, and these are embedded in a certifiably very misleading historical narrative. The whole account cannot be trusted.
The account comes from one guy, Shiva Ayyadurai, who did some great programming as a teenager. He claims to have invented electronic mail in 1978 when he was fourteen. He might have done some clever programming, but electronic mail already existed by the time he did his thing. Independent invention happens all the time in technological history, and Shiva is but another example, except for one thing. He had his ideas a little later than others, and the other ideas ended up being more influential on subsequent developments. Shiva can proudly join the long list of geeky teenagers who had some great technical skills at a young age, did some cool stuff, and basically had little impact on anybody else.
Except that Shiva won’t let it go. This looks like nothing more than Shiva’s ego getting in the way of an unbiased view.
Look, it is extremely well established that the email systems in use today descended from a set of inventors who built on each other’s inventions. They did their work prior to 1978. For example, it is well documented that the “@” in every email first showed up in 1971. Ray Tomlinson invented that. Others thought it was a good idea, and built on top of the @. We all have been doing it ever since. Moreover, this is not ancient history. Tomlinson has even written about his experiences, and lots of people know him. This is easy to confirm.
Though Ayyadurai’s shenanigans were exposed a few years ago, he persists. In the HuffPo piece yet again he pushes the story in which his inventions played a central place in the history of electronic mail. This time he has a slick infographic telling his version of things, and he managed to get others to act as shills for his story. He also now accuses others of fostering a conspiracy against his views in order to protect their place in history and deny him his. As if. “A teenager invented electronic mail” might be a great headline, and it might sound like a great romantic tale, but this guy is delusional.
One teenager invented the fundamental insights that we all use today? No, no, and many times no. This is just wrong.
BTW, I have met some of these inventors, and interviewed some of them too (for a book I am writing), and, frankly, the true inventors deserve all the credit they can get. This guy, Ayyadurai, deserves credit for clever at a young age, and nothing more.
Look, if you do not believe me, then read the experts. Many careful historians have spent considerable time exposing the falsehoods in this lie. If you are curious, read this by Tom Haigh, a respected and established computer industry historian, or this and this and this by Mike Masnick, who writes the techdirt blog about various events in tech (such as Huffington Post). These two lay out the issues in a pretty clear way, and from different angles, so they cover the territory thoroughly.
Look at the dates of those posts. These falsehoods were exposed two years ago, and are online. This is not news. Because these two have done the hard work, it takes approximately fifteen to twenty minutes to figure out what happened here.
And that is where we are today. HuffPo published the BS about this guy, authored by a few shills. According to Masnick, who makes it his business to do this sort of thing, HuffPo has been informed of their error. Yet, HuffPo has done nothing to disavow their story.
If I had to guess, there simply is nobody at HuffPo with enough time or energy to check on the accuracy of a story. The staff probably has moved on to other things, and don’t want to be bothered with a little historical article. That is the thing about quality; it is costly to keep it up everywhere, even on articles few readers really care about.
At the end of the day, Huffington Post published another story, one among many, and on a topic – the history of electronic mail. Does HuffPo lose very much from publishing one historically inaccurate story? No, not really, only a few of us know the truth, and only a few of us are sufficiently disgusted and angry. HuffPo’s reputation will take a hit with only a few readers.
But I will never trust them again. They have lost my trust completely. It will be very difficult to earn back.
You probably guessed how this post would end, so here it is: I suggest that you should not trust HuffPo ever again. Maybe if enough people react to this stupidity, HuffPo will invest in some journalistic integrity. Or maybe they will just lose readers a little bit at a time on hundreds or thousands of stories, each with little issues, and die a slow death from their own carelessness. Maybe.
Post script: Sometime after this was written Huffington Post took down the offending material. That raises an interesting question about whether I should trust them again. On the one hand, I totally respect them for acting. Let’s give them credit. On the other hand, those posts have been up for several weeks. I admit that it will be hard to lose this sense of skepticism. You can make up your own mind. SG