If your mother says ...
Since we're supposed to be a craft that avoids cliches, as well as one that prizes a reasoned skepticism, you can fill in your own "If your mother says ..." formulation. But the point remains the same: If you're supposed to play Trust But Verify with your closest friends and relatives, what do you figure you ought to be doing with other people's undergraduates?
Here we have what looks like a pretty typical day at the Fair-n-Balanced Network. You can't see the rest of the day's top stories, but Fox World looks much the same as it always does. There's a desperate search for a missing mom. A Bible-believing teacher is being persecuted by the enemies of freedom. Eco-freaks are getting therapy for their greenhouse guilt. And, of course, Muslim demands for special privileges are causing Shock Outrage in Britain. The sun comes up, the sun goes down.
Not much surprise in the top stories, either. Somebody at Fox might want to look up the meaning of "salty" (hint: the dictionary's in alphabetical order for your convenience), but that's another case in which it's impossible to tell basic editorial incompetence from deliberate bias. Jimmy Carter has been a top Decline of the West story for a week now. But the Yale story ... hmm, let's have a look:
A Yale student who claims she artificially inseminated herself "as often as possible" and then took drugs to induce miscarriages for her senior art project says she will showcase the stomach-turning display next week — complete with her own blood samples and videos from the terminated possible pregnancies.
The story of art major Aliza Shvarts' upcoming exhibit, which the Yale Daily News broke Thursday, has sparked widespread disgust and outrage.
That's open to debate -- or at least to counting Google hits. It's worth noting, though, that gullibility is an equal-opportunity employer, as the Huffington Post makes clear. (I can't tell whether Huffington or Drudge got to it first, but apparently the Yale Daily News is getting so much traffic at this writing that the original tale is only available in plaintext.) So let's take a look at exactly what's being claimed and what's offered in support.
Art major artificially inseminates self "as often as possible" while "periodically taking abortifacient drugs." How many donors, how many times? Not saying. How often actually pregnant in this nine-month project? Ibid. What sort of self-medication? "Legal and herbal." (Curly parsley? Thai basil?) Can we get a doctor's view? No, didn't see any need to consult a doctor.
Has it occurred to anybody yet that perhaps the point of the whole project is to -- oh, see what people say when they're told they're looking at a cube with the blood from the alleged miscarriages and the home bathtub videos? That absent some -- let's revise and resubmit that, absent any -- evidence that any of the events took place as described, what we have is a pedestrian account of an undergraduate art exhibition that has gained some national attention because of a provocative-sounding entry that has all the earmarks of a creative hoax? (Hint: When even the bobbleheads of the right admit the possibility that they're looking at a fake, that might be a bit of a hint for the alleged professionals at Fox and the outraged amateurs at Huffington.)
I usually don't have much time to waste on folks like NewsBusters, because that particular critique of media bias strikes me as fundamentally selective and ill-informed. (Unhappy with the 90 percent of media coverage that goes their way, they're making their Last Territorial Demand for the other 10 percent.) I take the liberty of quoting Warner Todd Huston here because in this case, he's right. Not only is the tale in all likelihood a hoax, "it's also proof that our sources of news rarely if ever employ any common sense in how they write up the news." He can't prove a negative, and neither can I. But "not provably false" is a long way from "true."
If you work for one of those grownup news sources out there, see what you can do to strangle this tale in its crib. Or at least to insist on, and make public, a full account of any attempts at verification and what sort of dead ends they led to.