Last week, you heard the rumor, from an anonymous McCain campaign source: Sarah Palin is so dumb, she didn't know that Africa was a continent! And on Monday, you may have heard David Shuster announce on MSNBC that the source of that rumor and others had come forward: It was Martin Eisenstadt of the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy,
There's just one little problem with that part of the story: Martin Eisenstadt doesn't exist. Neither does the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy. Plenty of folks around the liberal blogosphere have been hip to those pesky little facts since June, when William K. Wolfrum did a series of posts revealing "Eisenstadt" as a hoax at Shakesville and his own blog. Nevertheless, as Wolfrum put it in August, "Despite the supreme handicap of not actually existing, [Eisenstadt] has managed to assemble a strong list of media types willing to link to him to further their points." Among the media outlets taken in by "Eisenstadt": Air America, the L.A. Times, and as of Monday, MSNBC and The New Republic.
So when I saw Richard Pérez-Peña's New York Times article revealing not only the hoax but the true identity of "Martin Eisenstadt" (it's two filmmakers), I thought, "Finally, Wolfrum's research is going to be acknowledged!" Yeah, not so much. The first time my head exploded was when Pérez-Peña introduced Wolfrum not by name but as "one blogger who spent months chasing the illusion around cyberspace, trying to debunk it." I know too many people who have been referred to only as "one blogger" -- or, say, a "prominent feminist blogger" -- in media reports responding to their work, so I didn't expect to see credit where it was due. (Psst, journalists: Blog posts usually have bylines, too, and they're not all "MyDog'sName1985.") But then I was heartened to see Wolfrum mentioned by name toward the end of the article -- only to have my head explode once more when, in the last line, Pérez-Peña actually insinuates that Wolfrum was in on the hoax. Because, hey, how else could he possibly have figured it out all by himself?
Here's how: Like many bloggers, William K. Wolfrum is a former journalist, and he figured it out by doing some old-fashioned investigative reporting. Meanwhile, the media outlets who quoted and linked to "Eisenstadt" as a reliable source apparently didn't even go so far as old-fashioned fact-checking. Unbelievably, Pérez-Peña rushes past that point, reassuring Times readers that "most of Eisenstadt's victims have been bloggers, a reflection of the sloppy speed at which any tidbit, no matter how specious, can bounce around the Internet." Except for the part where "Eisenstadt" has had an online presence for at least a year, and mainstream outlets have been uncritically using him as a source for months, all while the tidbit that there is no Eisenstadt has been "bouncing around the internet." Said Wolfrum in an e-mail, "For the last several months you could Google the name 'Martin Eisenstadt,' and the third entry that came up was my post from Shakesville calling him out as a hoax." Darn those unprofessional bloggers who will quote anyone without even a cursory search on his name!
Wolfrum says he's not too bothered by the whole thing, but he marvels at the "lack of curiosity and interest in journalism" evinced by so many actual journalists. (And, it should be said, bloggers -- Pérez-Peña is certainly correct that many non-pro writers were duped as well. But, hey, everyone expects bloggers to be "sloppy.") Bringing this back to typical Broadsheet territory -- i.e., Palin Palin Palin! -- one of the most disturbing side effects of this latest "Eisenstadt" hoax is that many people are now assuming the "Africa is a country" rumor was fabricated by the hoaxers, so it's been proven that Palin never said such a thing. In fact, all they did was falsely claim credit for the tip, so the anonymous source is still presumably a real person, and it's still possibly true that Sarah Palin was not a star geography student. Honestly, as much as I'm willing to believe the scope of Palin's ignorance is breathtaking, even I have trouble buying that one. Unfortunately, we can't really know if it's true, because no one who's repeated the rumor seems to have looked into who the original source was, whether he or she has any credibility in the matter, or what, exactly, Palin said. Sounds like a job for a journalist -- or perhaps One Blogger.