The Plot Sickens

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Why I deleted Peter Whittle from my friends list

On November 10, blogger Peter Whittle came out swinging at me, saying I have violated standards of online journalism (by removing a contentious word from a blog entry, then explaining the edit in the comments section).

Greg Locke then featured Whittles commentary at www.nlpress.ca, which is fine.

Locke also wrote an analysis piece that is posted to the Canadian Journalism Project, or J-Source, where Locke is a board member. The next day, that entry disappeared, to be replaced by a completely rewritten piece.

There is no sign of the previous version at all. Just this note:

[UPDATE: An original version of this post contained inaccurate information, and the post has been edited to remove the inaccurate references.]

Yet, further down in the body text, Locke says this:

Whittle said that many reputable news organizations have policies stating that online articles must not be changed, but corrections, updates and follow-up stories should instead be added and linked to the original story.

Am I the only one who sees the irony in that?

But thats not all. What was left of Lockes commentary was still rife with errors, prompting me to post a comment to set the record straight.

You can read Lockes entry and my response here. You really need to pop over and read it, plus the three comments underneath. You will note that further changes have been made, in strikethrough mode, but if you look carefully, the errors remain.

Yesterday morning, I posted the above link to Whittles site, with the following note:

An apology would be nice. Either that, or some reason why your standards are higher than the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

Instead of an apology, Whittle posted this item to his blog, and then a revised version of it to the comments section of my Nasty Charges blog entry. Here are his concluding remarks:

If you correct a post, you must acknowledge in the post that you've made changes so readers are aware. These posts are the online archive of your blog. It's easy to fix things online and preserve the historical record with a footnote or a reference. It is not like your competing for space in a Newspaper or the article is fixed in time. As for your request to me of this morning for an apology, I do not regret my original post and only hope that perhaps we can all agree to a best practices for acknowledging edits that are identified in the original post that protects the historical archive. I have tried to keep this particular discussion confined to the best practices and addressing the challenges and protocol of online journalism/commentary. I think it irrelevant what particular political bias you may be perceived to have. In general, I enjoy your blog and your worldview.

Isnt that nice? After slagging me in his original post, Whittle now wants to confine our discussion to best practices.

Fat chance of that, Whittle. Ive got something to say to you.

A few days ago, Whittle said I violated the standards for most online journalism. Thats bogus. Since then, I have reviewed a head-spinning array of policies that online publishers supposedly adhere to when revising posted copy. In my case, I acknowledged the change in the comments section, which was one of many possible approaches. I did not violate online standards for journalism because there arent any yet. Its a mish-mash. But clearly I wasnt hiding anything.

Frankly, the insistence upon leaving incorrect language in the body text of the article is stupid. If somebody alleged that Peter Whittle was padding his expense claims, say, while working as an executive assistant in government, and then retracted that statement, would it be fair to leave that mistake on the record, even as a strike-through? I think not. Most people would demand it be expunged.

Weve seen what happens in the real world, with the Canadian Journalism Foundation at J-Source, and what it did to Greg Lockes piece. Entire entry gone, replaced by a re-write, with only a vague explanation. Ivor Shapiro of J-Source says the edits werent as major you imply. Yes they were. I have a screen capture of Lockes original article, and have compared them. Only two paragraphs are intact. Some have been deleted, others revised, and new ones added. Its a complete rewrite.

In his first post on this topic, Whittle said my edits were an an egregious attempt to change the public record. (egregious: outrageously bad or reprehensible)

And now, damage done, he softens on that position and gets all wishy-washy, trying to orchestrate a polite debate among colleagues. I am offended by his attempt to play nice now, after the way he maligned me on Tuesday.

I dont want to debate with you, Whittle. And I dont want to be your friend. I dont like you. I dont like you because you think it is acceptable to call your fellow Newfoundlanders traitors and quislings.

Quisling means a traitor who serves as the puppet of the enemy occupying his or her country, derived from Vidkun Quisling, who was head of Norways government during the Nazi occupation. If you cant discuss political differences without calling your foes Nazi collaborators, then I want no part of you. Im not picky about the company I keep, but I will draw the line somewhere.

Stop it with the smarmy best practices bullshit. You apparently have no time for me, and I definitely have none for you.

Just do the right thing, and apologize.

UPDATE (Nov 15): Craig Welsh offers his views on this disagreement over at his Townie Bastard blog. Sample quote: ...the interesting thing for me was why I was immediately willing to give Geoff the benefit of the doubt and assume Peter was being a git.

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  • Craig
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    When I was an undergraduate at Memorial in the late 1980s, I discovered in the library published manuscripts of major twentieth-century works -- The Waste Land, The Great Gatsby -- that demonstrated to me that the canonical texts I was reading existed, very late in their composition, in much different forms than the ones we all knew. I was hooked. Much of my scholarly work over the last two decades has been concerned with this idea. I work on manuscripts when I can, but there is also much to be gained by looking simply at the difference between subsequent editions of published texts. Oh, an author inserted another line here? Why?

    This seems relevant to the current issue, which has obviously moved beyond Newfoundland politics and what responsibilities the media has when it decides whether to pursue a story. I was taking a class from the well-known bibliographer D. F. McKenzie at Oxford in 1994, when I asked him, What will writing on computers do to this kind of research? He looked at me like I was silly: Well, people will save multiple versions of computer files for scholars to compare. And, if they don't, there will still be digital remnants of earlier versions. He was prescient on that last point, but McKenzie could never have foreseen a world in which one can publish exclusively in electronic form. He imagined comparing multiple electronic drafts with the printed word.

    It is good that people are thinking about the impact of unpublishing, of course, and best practices in the media are surely evolving. But the most strident comments I have read here over the last few days are from people who see this this as both an unprecedented development and one whose implications are wholly clear. That's just not true. Should I have the right to make silent edits? Does anyone? If they must not be silent, what are the practical implications of having to represent different versions simultaneously? These are much, much older questions that have implications far beyond journalism.

    I have tremendous respect for Geoff, and it is not wholly clear to me that everyone would agree that his error is obvious.