Boing Boing has posted a blurb referencing an article about a Dartmouth student who said, in a classroom discussion, that he had been visited by homeland sec feds after trying to borrow Mao Tse-Tung's ''Little Red Book" from the library. A teacher later mentioned this to a journalist during an interview on a related subject, and all of a sudden, it's big news. Other teachers are asked about its veracity, and confirm that the student had indeed said he'd been visited by the feds.
Media storm ensues. "Oh my god, the McCarthy era is back!" "Heavens to Betsy! Our library records are protected data!" "Jumpin' Jehosephat! My knickers are in a twist, they are!"
Ok, so the teacher that originally mentioned the issue to the journalist then decides it's prudent to verify the claim. He finds out it never actually happened, and quickly spread the word.
Now all hell is breaking loose; the public's been lied to again, and heads must roll, so no surprise that Clyde Barrow, chairman of the policy studies department, is crying foul and demanding the student be suspended and the faculty that spread the "hoax" be reprimanded.
Ok, hold on. Time for a reality check; this is out of control. Agendas and egos desperately need a good reigning-in.
Here's a perspective:
1. Undergrad in poli-sci course wants to impress pretty girl next to him, so he raises his hand in class and spouts some fib about being harassed by feds for doing perfectly legitimate research. "Ooh, oppressed rebel, how sexy. I like to sleep with oppressed rebels." Probably didn't happen, but this is a picture of the environment in which it did.
2. Professor initiates in-class debate about the dubious claim, because it presents an opportunity for good debate, and better to have a good debate than question the likelihood of such an event.
3. Later, during an interview, professor mentions the incident, quite possibly in the same spirit as when professor encouraged discussion. Or maybe in the same spirit as the student, trying to catch some attention. In any case, he didn't lie.
4. Journalist pushes the big red button about the little red book.
The journalist is the only one at fault here. The journalist should be reprimanded for not verifying such a tall tale.
Think about it; is it irresponsible to pass around outlandish stories among your friends and peers? Sure, but we all do it: "A student told me last week that he'd been interrogated by the feds for his library habits! What a messed up world." "Indeed, Jim. Hey, next round's on me."
Our private lives are not a forum for bulletproof debate. It'd be nice, but it's not practical. Sometimes you just want to share stories with your friends. That's perfectly fine.
This is not the same thing as, "Good Morning America. Just in this morning from the University of Massachusetts..."
It's when a story is presented by the media that some semblance of bulletproof should at least be attempted. That is where we failed. It went from harmless fib, to harmless gossip, to less-than-well-thought-out comment, to utterly irresponsible reporting.
That's it. There's your progression. Let the kid be, inform the "hoax-spreading staff" that they are no such thing, as they only repeated what they knew to be true: "I was told that the kid said that, yes." Then (maybe bother to) ask the professor to be a little more careful about what he says to the painfully-prone-to-incompetence media. And lastly, shoot the journalist.