You may recall that not too long ago, Chris Mooney found himself in a world of journalistic hurt after a story he so eagerly used to bash the supposed incivility of vocal atheists turned out to be a complete fabrication by a reader fond of using sockpuppets. Basically, the commenter in question had a short lived blog called You’re Not Helping which primarily focused on telling people like PZ, Ophelia Benson and Jerry Coyne how horrible they were for daring to call out accommodationist shenanigans and how they were holding back unbelievers with their frankness. To support his little crusade, he fed Mooney a story about how he and his colleagues at an unnamed research university were being derided and mocked by obnoxious atheists for willing to extend a hand to believers, and Chris, looking for something with which to smear New Atheists, eagerly swallowed up the tale and promoted it to a blog post. Well, now the truth caught up with him and the culprit has been found.
Aside from Mooney’s numerous failings in proper journalistic fact checking detailed in the first link, we have to wonder whether it’s such a good idea to out the commenter who started it all, especially when some of those involved in the story actually know his name. On the one hand, some are saying that what he did was just a cry for attention that should’ve been ignored, and if Mooney actually did his fact checking every once in a while rather than just bicker with new atheists for a chance at Templeton’s cash, this story would’ve never come up in the first place. Others take a harsher view; since the commenter in question, going by the pseudonym Tom Johnson for his tall tale, committed an ethical fraud, he should be outed on these grounds alone. And even his graduate adviser is actually considering whether his sockpuppetry and potential use of his school’s name for Mooney’s inept attempts at fact-checking are reasons for a disciplinary action. Obviously, they say, he should be held accountable for lying to the public especially because his college wasn’t explicitly named in the affair and it’s unlikely he would be facing any punishment from his institution.
So what should we do about “Tom,” and how much of a part did he play in Mooney’s anti-atheist posts? I think we shouldn’t necessarily out him since causing enough of a ruckus to get hauled in front of his advisers for his unethical actions could very well scare him straight. In fact, his quite willful admission on the web already seems to be a step in the right direction. Should someone start spreading the same anti-atheist tall tales, we know where to find him. The real fault, I’d argue, lies with Chris. Someone who claims to be a real journalist with a serious education in the subject should know that there will be readers and commenters who’ll try their best to provoke you, or use your blog as a vehicle for attracting attention to themselves. It’s up to writers to be aware of that fact, check their sources thoroughly, and avoid using anecdotes from some unnamed, unverified person on the web as evidence of anything. Chris should be ashamed of himself because combined with his lavish Templeton fellowship and this incident, we can see his true colors, and those colors aren’t pretty. And if Chris was actually a serious journalist, “Tom” would’ve remained a random concern troll who liked to back his own words with sockpuppets, smoke and mirrors, rather than the catalyst of a nasty incident.
[ illustration by Jonathan Burton ]