Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

When the Times reports rumors

Update, 7:04pm, July 23: Robert Mackey has been very gracious about engaging with the points I’ve raised in this post. Please make sure you read our exchange in the comments on the post, as well as the post itself. And many thanks to Robert for responding constructively to a critical post from me.

Robert Mackey of New York Times News Blog, The Lede, has been covering Iran-focused events in the citizen media space. He posts time-stamped updates to The Lede that excerpt from tweets and blogposts of people in Iran or outside the country who are writing about Iran. It’s an interesting experiment, a form of coverage much closer to what some bloggers and tweeters were doing at the height of the Tehran protests than to what the Times usually does. It’s also related to the work we do at Global Voices, filtering, translating and contextualizing citizen media as we amplify voices to a broader audience.

On Tuesday July 21 at 1:19pm, Mackey posted an update focused on the complexity of the Iranian online information environment and the possibility that Iranian authorities may be trying to disrupt online activities. The update goes on to report a rumor that Hossein Derakshan, imprisoned in Iran for the past eight months, is working with Iranian intelligence services. Mackey quotes Omid Habibinia, an Iranian blogger living in Switzerland, and a blog commenter, Javad Ghorbati, as the source for these rumors.

Let me offer some context. Derakshan is an extremely controversial character. He was one of the first people to blog from Iran, and is recognized as one of the main people who promoted the idea of blogging in Persian. Early in his career, Hoder (as he’s generally known) was highly critical of the Iranian government, closely involved with progressive Iranian bloggers, and prone to dramatic gestures, including travelling to Israel on his Canadian passport and blogging about the trip.

At some point after his Israel trip, Hoder became concerned that the US government was planning an attack on Iran, and worried that his online writing gave support and comfort to anti-Iranian forces. The tone of his blog changed markedly, and he began telling friends of plans to return to Iran, and his fear that he’d face arrest due to his Israel trip. He made clear to friends that he did not want a campaign for his release – especially a campaign led by Americans – as he was more concerned about potential American hostility to Iran than his own fate at the hands of Iranian authorities. This has put his friends – myself included – in an awkward position. We want to respect his wishes, but we also want to see him released from detention.

When Hoder’s politics changed, many of his old friends were upset. Some suggested that Hoder must now be cooperating with Iranian authorities and shouldn’t be trusted. When Hoder was arrested, the circumstances surrounding his arrest were very confusing – it took a long time to get confirmation from Iranian and Canadian authorities that he had, in fact, been detained. Given his changed politics, arrest didn’t seem to make much sense. This, in turn, generated more rumors – people suggested that he hadn’t been arrested but simply disappeared from view to work more closely with the government.

In other words, it’s not news that some folks on the left side of the Iranian blogosphere believe that Hoder is a spy. This isn’t a particularly good example of the point Mackey is trying to make, that the Iranian blogosphere is getting increasingly paranoid about being infiltrated – this is a rumor that has circulated since 2007. You would think that the fact that Hoder’s now been imprisoned for eight months would counterbalance this rumor. But conspiracy theorists see his long detention and the fact that President Ahmadinejad mentioned Derakshan while asking religious prosecutors to respect the rights of Roxanna Saberi as “evidence” that he must somehow be a government collaborator.

Here’s some of the context Mackey offered for the rumors he amplified:

Mr. Derakhshan mysteriously disappeared after his return to Iran from Canada in 2008. The fact that his stance had seemed to soften on Iran’s government had dismayed several of his fellow bloggers before he went missing. In 2006, he had made a point of challenging government dogma by traveling to Israel and blogging about it.

That disappearance isn’t so mysterious at this point – he was arrested. But in the context of a pair of quotes that claim that Hoder is a government agent – and no quotes that dispute this theory – suggesting that he “mysteriously disappeared” appears to support the theory that Derakshan is a secret agent, not a political prisoner.

Mackey’s update generated several sharply critical comments, including from my friend and colleague Solana Larsen, who noted that the New York Times appeared to be lending credibility to some very dangerous assertions. Mackey has ammended his post in response to these comments, and it includes two paragraphs that suggest to me his discomfort about spreading this libelous rumor. Mackey has made ammendments to his post, acknowledging the controversy. The post contains two paragraphs (unchanged by Mackey, as he clarifies in the comments below), which I believe reflect his discomfort with amplifying a rumor which I consider to be libelous.

While there is no evidence to support the rumor that Mr. Derakhshan is cooperating with the authorities in their battle against Iran’s opposition bloggers – and the people running the online campaign to free Mr. Derakhshan vehemently deny the rumor – the fact that some Iranian bloggers are again talking about this possibility seems to indicate that the “cyber army” set up by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has helped to stir up paranoia and fear in that community.

Last month we reported that a series of updates were posted on Twitter by a blogger who identified himself as a member of the Revolutionary Guard who seemed to be dedicated to finding and helping to arrest opposition protesters and bloggers. Even if Mr. Derakhshan has not defected to the side of Iran’s security forces, it is clear that some Internet-savvy people have taken the fight to suppress the opposition’s protests online.

Now, I’m not a journalist, and certainly not employed by the august New York Times, but it seems to me that when you start a sentence, “While there is no evidence to support the rumor that…” you should probably step back from your keyboard and ask yourself whether you should be writing this article.

In response, I offered my 134 characters worth of media criticism: “While there is no evidence to support the rumor that Mr. Mackey of the NYTimes manufactures stories, it IS being discussed on Twitter.” My friend Quinn Norton offered a similar, but funnier critique: “Also, I heard a rumor that NYT editorial turns into lizards at night and eats the janitorial staff. Now you have too.”

Her tweet linked to a post by David Steven, titled “The Paper of Rumor”, who feels strongly that Mackey is out of line:

Now it’s possible that Hoder has agreed to cooperate – perhaps under torture. Maybe, he even did a deal before he went home. Perhaps, too, the Times’ editor, Bill Keller, is still shagging his reporters. Point is we don’t know whether any of these assertions are true.

You have to hand it to the cowardly shits at the Times, though. If you’re going to libel someone, it makes sense to do it when your target is locked away in a jail cell. Then you can publish whatever the hell you like.

Friend and colleague Jillian York thinks Steven (and I) are taking aim at the wrong guy – we should be criticizing the bloggers spreading these claims: “Why are we blaming Mackey – a journalist with no real connection to or experience with Iran – and not the blogger he quoted.

She’s got a point. But I think there are good reasons to criticize Mackey in this case.

Technorati ranks The Lede as the 83rd most popular blog they track. Habibinia’s blog isn’t ranked – Technorati sees only six blog links to it. In other words, The Lede is spreading Habibinia’s theory to a much larger audience. It’s also putting it under the New York Times banner. We can argue about whether Times blogs should be read the same way as news articles – they shouldn’t – but it’s certainly a concern that people will read something published by a Times employee on a New York Times website as having a level of credibility that most blogs don’t.

With that power to amplify and legitimate comes responsibility. We think a lot about this issue at Global Voices, as much of what we do involves amplifying voices. When we do our job well, we select a balance of voices, not just one perspective. We offer context that might help to explain why bloggers are putting forth one opinion or another. We don’t always get it right – it’s hard, and especially hard to do quickly. It’s a form of journalism – it requires journalistic values like fairness and transparency applied to a field – citizen media – that isn’t always journalistic. As I mentioned above, I don’t think Mackey does very well here at providing appropriate context, in providing a balanced perspective, or even in breaking an interesting story – instead, he gives credibility to a rumor that’s best understood in the context of Derakshan’s complex history, not the current protests.

It’s fascinating to see the New York Times needing to wrestle with the same questions we have to deal with at Global Voices. I’m glad they’re taking citizen media seriously enough to be reporting on it, but hope they’ll do a better job in wrestling with the complexity of these sorts of stories in the future.

17 Responses to “When the Times reports rumors”

  1. If Times blogs shouldn’t be read as news articles, how should they be read?

  2. Robert Mackey says:

    Not surprisingly I completely disagree with the suggestion that I have spread libel or in any way endorsed what I called a “rumor” about Mr. Derakhshan.

    After getting one comment on this post from a reader who also wrongly asserted that I had endorsed the rumor, I did revise part of the post to clarify it, but the essential point remained the same as it was in the initial version of the post. What I was doing, in the context of a discussion of the efforts by Iran’s authorities to use the Internet to fight Iranian opposition supporters, was reporting that fear and suspicion had led Iranian bloggers to doubt each other — and reporting the fact that some Iranian bloggers suspect that Mr. Derakhshan may have cooperated with the authorities. It is a fact that some people obviously do think that, and reporting it in this context is far from supporting that theory as you claim I have.

    I understand the concerns of people who know and support Mr. Derakhshan, but I’d like to point out that you are incorrect to say that I went back and added the two paragraphs above you quote. The part of the post where I explicitly stated that “While there is no evidence to support the rumor… the fact that some Iranian bloggers are again talking about this possibility seems to indicate that the ‘cyber army’ set up by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has helped to stir up paranoia and fear in that community” was in the original version of the post. That statement and the following paragraph about the use by the Revolutionary Guard of Twitter was part of the original context I supplied when I mentioned the suspicions of an Iranian blogger, Omid Habibinia, who has seemed to me to be an otherwise reliable source of information on the protests in Iran.

    To put this in context, which I think you have not done in your post despite the passing reference to wrestling with similar issues at Global Voices, the fact is that in this part of this blog post, I have done exactly the same thing that I have done on a range of matters about Iran since I started following the dispute over the election on the Web on June 12: reporting that people have posted information online about something to do with the dispute over the election that we cannot verify but may be worth knowing and thinking about. That is exactly the same standard I have used to pass on what appear to be first-hand accounts of protests and clashes posted on Iranian blogs, posted on Twitter or submitted in reader comments to our news blog. That is exactly the same standard I have used to draw attention to interesting photographs posted online and to video that appears to have been shot and uploaded to the Web by witnesses to the protests or citizen journalists. My argument would be that if this is done in a transparent manner — with the caveats that we cannot verify this information but that it was posted by this source at this time and this place — that this helps to enrich the conversation about the news taking place online.

    Having written about Mr. Derakhshan’s case before the election protests began, I can acknowledge that you may be right that doubts about his position expressed by one Iranian blogger now may not have been a good way to illustrate the fear and paranoia some bloggers now feel, but I think your criticism, and some of that you have quoted from others, suggesting that mentioning the rumor was wildly irresponsible or libelous is both an overreaction and unfair, in that it fails to mention the context in which I have produced several weeks of work on Iran, and the conversation about the election taking place online.

    – Robert Mackey

  3. Ethan says:

    Robert, thanks for engaging with my criticism of your piece. I appreciate the clarification that the two paragraphs I reference were not added, but were there previously. I attempted to be vague about that in my post, as I didn’t have access to the earlier version of your piece. It was clear you’d made an amendment, as you added a footnote. I’ll clarify in a note above.

    I think our disagreement has to do with the nature of context. You state above, “To put this in context, which I think you have not done in your post despite the passing reference to wrestling with similar issues at Global Voices, the fact is that in this part of this blog post, I have done exactly the same thing that I have done on a range of matters about Iran since I started following the dispute over the election on the Web on June 12: reporting that people have posted information online about something to do with the dispute over the election that we cannot verify but may be worth knowing and thinking about.”

    I don’t think that’s a high enough standard for context: the standard that “someone’s saying this and it might be worth thinking about.” I certainly think we fall into that trap at Global Voices, but I think the goal is to provide significantly more information and context than that. In aggregating and amplifying these voices, there’s an opportunity – and a responsibility, I would argue – to add some context that helps explain where a particular viewpoint is coming from. In other words, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say, “Someone online is saying this, and we may not be able to verify it.” I think those of us engaged in amplifying citizen media need to aim for a higher standard – to help readers understand and navigate through these perspectives.

    You’ve seized on the word “libelous” – I assume that’s because, as a professional journalist, that’s a fighting word. My understanding of libel is that it involves publishing something known to be false and likely to be damaging to the person mentioned. Given the pains you’ve taken to acknowledge the unverifiability of this rumor, the likelihood that it’s false, and your obvious understanding of how dangerous this rumor could be for Mr. Derakshan, I continue to be confused by your decision to amplify it. I don’t think it served your rhetorical purposes, I don’t think it was responsible, and I don’t think it was good journalism.

  4. Robert Mackey says:

    I accept your criticism that the rumor about Mr. Derakhshan was not a good choice to illustrate the new fears and paranoia some Iranian bloggers understandably feel right now, since the confusion and dismay about his blogging and detention dates to a time before the protests, and if I had it do do over again I would not have used the example. I disagree with you that I have acknowledged “the likelihood that [the rumor]’s false.” You know Mr. Derakhshan and must be basing your assessment of that likelihood on your personal knowledge. I have no way of knowing if it is true or false that he has cooperated with the authorities.

    I would disagree with you in one other way as well — I think you are misunderstanding the context in which I am working. The news blog I write is not, like Global Voices, devoted to aggregating and amplifying what non-professional journalists write — although I respect that work and have done that to some extent while writing these live blog updates on Iran — my posts generally build on information I have gathered myself through first-hand reporting or come across in the reports of other news organizations.

    Branching this far into the use of information from often-anonymous bloggers is something I am doing out of necessity, due to the severe reporting restrictions now in effect in Iran. I think it matters that, as I said in my previous comment, over the past several weeks I have posted, linked to or excerpted dozens of what appear to be first-hand accounts — in the form of text, video or photographs — of the protests and clashes in Iran. In each case I have only been able to do that by acting in a transparent manner and telling readers that I have no way of verifying if this piece of information is correct or if the anonymous source is being honest.

    In each case I have done reported that this information is online, and acknowledged that I am not in a position to verify it, but offered it up to readers with as much context as I am able to provide. Your criticism seems to overlook the circumstances in which I’m working and what I would argue is a good track record at sifting carefully and responsibly through thousands of anonymous Web postings over the course of the last few weeks.

    We obviously disagree about whether it was appropriate for me to include this rumor about Mr. Derakhshan in the list of things I thought it was interesting that Iranian bloggers were saying. But I think it is necessary to understand that what I am doing is somewhat different than what you are doing at Global Voices or what I would be doing if I were reporting first-hand from Iran. This is a hybrid form of journalism and blogging for which there are not yet clear rules and I am working hard to do it in a responsible manner. I think I have mostly succeeded in that effort over the past several weeks and am sorry that you or any other reader found this part of this post objectionable. But I think it is necessary to acknowledge that I was engaged in the same activity when I pointed to this rumor as when I pointed to video of Neda Agha-Soltan having been shot or excerpted a comment from a reader who claimed of which there was no solid news report at that time. I think it was good that I helped people hear about what were essentially rumors about these other events, even if the very same process may have led me to make a poor choice in mentioning the rumor about Mr. Derakhshan.

    – Robert Mackey

  5. Mike says:

    Wow — this is an example of why I read blogs. (Especially this one.) What an illuminating exchange. ‘Citizen criticism’ at its most engaging. Well done.

  6. Ethan says:

    Robert –

    You wrote, “This is a hybrid form of journalism and blogging for which there are not yet clear rules and I am working hard to do it in a responsible manner.”

    We are in absolute agreement on this matter. I agree that you, and all journalists trying to cover the situation in Iran, are facing an extremely challenging situation. It’s difficult to know what rules we should follow given the need to rely on online sources, rather than sources on the street.

    I apologize that I haven’t been closely following your Iran coverage on The Lede and that my criticism of this situation could be read as a critique of your work on Iran in general – that wasn’t my intent, and I’m looking forward to reading backwards through your coverage.

    I take your point that you’re working under a different ruleset than the Global Voices ruleset. I’d be interested in making a case for the GV rules, but that’s a different, and larger, debate. What I think is interesting – and what I hope is interesting for people watching our conversation – is that this is a decidely new way to do journalism, one where the rules are evolving in realtime, and where there are open questions about what’s the right way to move forward. I’ve already gotten email from friends who teach journalism who are interested in this conversation, and who I hope will weigh in either on this thread or on their blogs.

    Again, I deeply appreciate you engaging with my comments and with the larger set of issues.

  7. katie says:

    Thanks for the discussion & debate.

  8. Great post and great exchange. It is very easy for all of us here in the West to look at the situation from afar and report rumors, or issue judgments (and they surely are judgments, and may carry with them a punishment). The truth on the ground may be harder to discern and is definitely more complex than we can imagine. “Among the illnesses fascism has inflicted upon us,” wrote Ignazio Silone in 1938, “this is not the smallest: not being able to distinguish with certainty between friend and enemy.” And Silone himself spent much of his life dealing with accusations that he was a CIA spy; and now it’s generally agreed that he collaborated, in some way, with the Fascist police. His case may be instructive in this context. It’s difficult enough to prove collaboration in many of these cases; it’s even harder to say why people collaborate with repressive regimes, and to what imagined ends.

  9. Robert Mackey says:

    Ethan -

    Thank you for engaging in a dialogue about this with me. As I said, I am open to criticism on the substance of the part of my post you and some other people have taken issue with, and want to try to work in this new and evolving form responsibly, so I am listening to people who respond to what. On the form that response takes, I think it is important for us to be able to engage in real dialogue, like this, as opposed to exchanging monologues, and I found the polemic nature of some people’s responses unfortunate, in part because they made some ill-founded assumptions about the work I’ve been doing and about how that fits in with overall news report The Times now produces in several formats. But maybe, despite the possibility of dialogue in comment threads, we have to acknowledge that blogging, like other forms of written exchange, makes it easy to be polemical and keep trying to use the form to create spaces for dialogue. In some sense what I’ve found myself doing during the several long live blog posts I’ve written on Iran since June 12 is much more like leading a conversation than giving a lecture, and at many points that’s made the whole thing far better than any lecture I could give. I’ll grant that by elevating some of the comments I came across about Mr. Derakhshan to the center of that conversation in that afternoon’s live-blog post, I may have done a poor job as a moderator and participant in the discussion. But, since what I’m doing is very different from article-writing, I can’t take that part of the discussion back — and what is there is a sort of transcript of that day’s live discussion of the events and issues in Iran. What I can do and have done is to add some clarification of the context in which I elevated those comments by other people to the center of the main-bar conversation. I’ve also thought hard about the issues raised by you and other people who objected to this part of the discussion. If I have an opening to write further about Mr. Derakhshan’s case in the future as, hopefully, more and better information about his detention becomes available, I will certainly turn to you and to other bloggers who know him and are familiar with his work to help explain his situation more fully.

    – Robert Mackey

  10. As someone who is personally and professionally invested in these Iran, tech and media issues, and someone who knows, enjoys and respects Mackey and Zuckerman very much — I just want to say that I’ve loved watching all of this unfold.

    For what it’s worth, I recently spoke with a Canadian official in Ottawa who reiterated the Canadian government’s position regarding Hossein Derakhshan (the same that they’ve been telling me since January):

    Mr. Farivar,

    The current position concerning this case remains as follows:

    - We have received confirmation from the Iranian Government that Hossein Derakhshan, a dual citizen of Canada and Iran, has been arrested.

    - Since learning of his reported arrest in mid-November, consular officials have been in contact with Iranian authorities, including by diplomatic note, to obtain confirmation of Mr. Derakhshan’s arrest and to seek consular access.

    - Consular officials will continue to press Iranian authorities for access to Mr. Derakhshan, consistent with the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

    Thank you,

    Rodney Moore

    Spokesperson and Media Relations / Porte-parole et relations avec les mdias
    Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade / Ministre des affaires trangres et du commerce international

  11. Ingrid Jones says:

    **Technorati ranks The Lede as the 83rd most popular blog they track. Habibinias blog isnt ranked Technorati sees only six blog links to it. In other words, The Lede is spreading Habibinias theory to a much larger audience.**

    Dear Ethan, If one used Technorati and the number of inbound links to gauge the size of audience and reach of my blog, Sudan Watch, the conclusion reached would be miles out. I hope you will find a way, one day, to accurately assess the size of a blog’s readership and number of subscribers. Kindest regards, Ingrid.

  12. Ethan says:

    Ingrid, it’s a good point. It’s very difficult to compare arbitrary websites in any way that’s fair or recognizes their influence. A comparison using Alexa rank would be similarly inaccurate. I think my point stands, though – amplifying a post on The Lede is likely to increase its audience by several orders of magnitude.

  13. Sara says:

    For many days now, the hardliner kayhan and farsnews are talking about a spy who was arrested previously and is exposing the plans of the reformists to have a velvet revolution.At times the plot they are describing is so childish yet detailed. today the judge at the trial of the 100 reformists mentioned that spy again. there is no doubt that he is referring to Hossein Derakhshan.The confessions of the so called spy according to the judge is behind all the charges against the reformist leaders. I just thought you would want to know about this.

  14. Sara says:

    Oh by the way the judge even referred to Ethan Zuckerman today when he was reading the charges. So I guess you are part of this sham trial too!

  15. Ethan says:

    Thanks, Sara. Global Voices is following the case closely – we’re trying to get translations of the news releases and court proceedings. Hossein has a long relationship with Global Voices and with me personally. If this is the product of a forced confession – my interpretation of the situation – it’s not surprising that I or Global Voices would be mentioned. These confessions attempt to construct complex plots, involving the unlikeliest of actors, to “demonstrate” that we’re not just dealing with blogging or citizen media, but with the efforts of outside instigators. While it’s more than a little disconcerting to see my name in these proceedings, within that context, it’s not all that surprising.

  16. Sara says:

    Ethan
    fabricating plot stories is not something new in IRI,however I think this is an interesting case because it shows that the Ahmadinejad camp was somehow organizing an election coup since a few month ago.I do not know Hossein Derakhshan but from what I have read about and from him, he looks like a very controversial person hence the right type to use as a witness.Again, whether he has been forced to or has become voluntarily part of this whole thing remains to be seen.
    The core of the story as I said is They knew they were going to lose the elections and started planning many months ago. This goes beyond vote rigging and that’s why it is important to write about it.

  17. Ethan,

    Not sure why my long post didn’t take here, but I’ve put it on my blog just in case it’s too long for your system:
    http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/second_thoughts/2009/07/the-amplifiers.html

    My main concern about your take on all this is the facility with which you accept that the Iranian blogger was right to invoke the notion that American hostility would be increased if he were arrested, and then outsiders could point to further repression as a justification for aggression.

    But that isn’t valid, as there is absolutely no indication that the Obama administration was going to invoke the arrests of Iranians as a pretext to take military or other aggressive action, and there’s no evidence that this or that arrest would sway them. It seems to me you really have to ask yourself what’s up with that version of the story, because it seems to me to be the classic twist that propagandists used to paralyze concerned liberals. I’ve seen it time again all over the world from autocratic governments “Don’t talk to those dissidents, you’ll get them in trouble” or people who occupy a complex space where they may cooperate with the regime at some level or at least moderate their dissent based on various considerations will say, “Don’t make too much of my harassment because it will just feed the conservatives”.

    Not an argument I find at all acceptable for a journalist, a blogger, or a human rights activist to allow to govern their actions.

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