Oprah Gets Burned By Angels at the Fence – Verifying Facts in a Digital World

There is one basic reason why wisdom of crowd sites do not have the academic gravitas or full authority one might expect:

there is no fact-checking.

Every community has its sages, its promoters and its intelligentsia.  As the community evolves, the self-defined roles evolve into something conferred by the Almighty rather than recognition of past accomplishments.

Star-maker and uber-celebrity Oprah Winfrey undoubtedly has stables of people filling each role available to her.   Despite all good intentions, author James Frey snuck one by the Harpo Productions team that manages the Winfrey empire.   The company employs 400 people, but since Frey had already blown through New York publishing circles, Oprah was just another high value target.

Now the Harpo folks have made the boss look bad again.  Various private estimates put the company’s revenue line at $300 to $500 million, but the team that won’t get fooled again got nailed by 79 year old Herman Rosenblat, who penned Angel at the Fence, the story of how he met his wife at a concentration camp.   The book seemed poised to go nuclear, hitting romance and non-fiction against the horrific backdrop of Jews in World War II-era Europe.

Except the Rosenblats didn’t meet in a concentration camp even though Mr. Rosenblat apparently was held at one during that war.  Multiple mainstream media sources quote Rosenblat as admitting the fraud, undoubtedly squelching the awesome movie and, you know, making the real Queen of all Media a big enemy.  Having a subtitle that includes the phrase “true story” is simply chutzpah beyond belief.

Rosenblat didn’t just get outted before his book rolled out.  There was a movie in the works, a children’s version had already hit the streets and the media machine was gearing up.   So what happened?

Someone got sloppy in the fact-checking area.   On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog indeed.  And telling tall tales and embellishing an autobiography is a long-term publishing tradition.  But what if Mr. Rosenblat had simply channeled his knowledge and experiences, melding them into a novel that could speak of a decades long marriage and a concentration camp?   The phrase “true story” wouldn’t have changed anything except categories under which Mr. Rosenblat’s book would have appeared in the best seller lists.

I am reminded of a family member who was diagnosed with an especially bad disease earlier this year.  “You can read dot gov (government) sites,” I said.  “And you can look at the Mayo Clinic’s site.   Send me a link to anything else.”  Because fact checking in a digital world becomes more critical every day that millions of sites publish more “facts”.   In journalism school a generation ago, we were taught how to fact-check and double source stories.  If only the Harpo folks had done so, Oprah’s book recommendations wouldn’t have taken a second major hit in the past few years.

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