Accuracy in Media

That the media don’t bother to check their facts is brought home with the tale of a Colorado man who found it easy during the Christmas season to perpetrate a hoax on the Big Media. Alek Komarnitsky of Lafayette, Colo., managed to generate international attention for himself by falsely claiming the 17,000 Christmas lights on his home could be controlled by anyone in the world who visited his website, http://www.komar.org/xmas/

While most of Komarnitsky’s neighbors knew of the hoax, and some actually were in on the ploy, media remained oblivious to the fact that it was done through computer tricks or Mrs. Komarnitsky inside the home controlling the lights. 

Local media were impressed, with ABC 7 of Denver taking the prankster up in their “Airtracker 7” helicopter for a special report. The lead-in for the story announced that citizens, just by a click of the mouse, could control the 17,000 Christmas lights. “That’s great,” chimed in one anchor. “That’s wild!” said the other. Before you could say, “April Fools!” the Associated Press had distributed the story internationally. The New York Times website then linked to Komarnitsky’s site. Interest grew from Singapore to Sausalito and soon there were 4.3 million visitors cramming into Mr. Komarnitsky’s website.

Komarnitsky revealed his hoax to Wall Street Journal reporter Charles Forelle, who wrote a humorous piece about the whole incident.

To add insult to media injury, Komarnitsky now has a web page dedicated to media coverage of the hoax, detailing how some media outlets continue to get the story wrong.

Some media aren’t laughing, though. Mr. Komarnitsky has now been termed a liar and “unethical” in the grouchy press. An initial local report on ABC 7 in Denver said the Wall Street Journal had “uncovered the ruse,” instead of reporting that Komarnitsky went to the Journal with the story of the hoax. The ABC 7 subheadline was “Lafeyette Man’s Ruse Unravels After Reporter Visit.” ABC later changed the subheadline to “Lafayette Man’s Ruse unravels.” They also changed some wording of their article from “He continued with his story until a Wall Street Journal reporter visited his home and uncovered the ruse” to “He continued with his story until a Wall Street Journal reporter began investigating and confirmed the ruse.” The fact that the prankster himself had revealed the hoax was still not made clear.

ABC 7 also said that Komarnitsky did not respond to their requests for comment, when he had actually emailed them 5 hours earlier with an announcement of the upcoming Journal article on the hoax. The email read: “Just an early heads-up that I’ll should be making (for me) a major announcement about my Christmas Lights Webcam soon. I hope you enjoyed it as much as bazillions of people around the world did (the chopper ride we did was absolutely great?would love to do again), and stay tuned at: http://www.komar.org/cgi-bin/xmas_webcam Happy Holidays, alek.”

Paul McClellan, Service Lighting General Manager, was interviewed by the press because an ad for his company appeared on the hoax site. The press quoted McClellan as calling Komarnitsky “unethical.” Yet McClellan says the press completely misrepresented what he said. The manager took out a page on his company web site, to correct what he termed misreporting. That  information is at http://www.servicelighting.com/komar.cfm.

Denver’s NBC 9 did a better job, stating that Komarnitsky revealed the hoax, and that he had perpetrated it to spread holiday cheer. On December 28 the Associated Press issued a correction. Angela Gunn from USA Today wrote a lengthy and humorous article on the prank, and it was clear media were now watching Komarnitsky’s site, not to try to control his Christmas lights but to watch for updates on their own errors.

A local story of a hoax became an international story, and then generated more international press as reporters rushed to cover how media had been duped. The fact that so many errors could be made in such a minor story makes one wonder how the media are doing with the bigger stories.

Consider cases where the media fail to verify the identities of those they interview. Those coming to mind include a man who claimed he experienced 9/11 directly but was lying, and stories about supposed former Navy SEALs later revealed to be frauds. The latter error is repeated so often that a website called “VeriSEAL” has sprung up to reveal imposters.

Perhaps the greatest hoax is that the media are engaged in meticulous fact-checking of all their reporting.




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