Prime Time Crime


(Prime Time Crime exclusive Dec. 29, 2005)

Media slow to respond after printed hoax exposed

By Gary Cameron


On December 17th of this year, an American small town newspaper ran a story that claimed: "A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."

To add to the resulting media firestorm, the Little Red Book story seemed to confirm the worst fears of liberals who had claimed ever since 9/11 that the Patriot Act would result in Big Brother investigating library patrons' book-borrowing habits. Liberal blogs trumpeted the story even as they complained that major news outlets weren't covering it. Many of the usual Bush-haters, folks like Molly Ivans, James Carville and Teddy Kennedy wrote op-ed pieces about the Little Red Book incident, and a few small papers used it as the basis for editorials, but the story didn't seem to have legs. There was indeed a problem: not only was the story a hoax -- it was an obvious hoax.

Jonathan Manthorpe used this story as the basis for an op-ed piece he wrote for the December 20th Vancouver Sun. It's not online, so I've copied the relevant parts: 

Little Red Book provides chilling look at U.S. security

A student who wanted a copy of Mao's work found himself the subject of a security investigation.

"Any serious student researching Communism (sic) regimes in the 20th century, and especially those whose leaders indulged in grotesque personality cults, would want to take a look at the famous Little Red Book of helpful aphorisms attributed to Chinese leader Mao Zedong. This is exactly what a student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth did last semester as part of research for a paper for his two history professors Brian Williams and Robert Pontbrand. As a copy of the original Little Red Book, which during the cultural revolution all Chinese were required to carry as a sign of their loyalty to "the Great Helmsman", was not available at UMass at Dartmouth, the student put in a request through the inter-library program. Within a remarkably short period of time two agents from the Department of Homeland Security visited the student's New Bedford home and quizzed him about why he wanted the book. Mao's Little Red Book is, it seems, on a watch list kept by the United States' anti-terror agencies. Anyone wanting to read such inflammatory literature is suspect and the computers that keep constant watch on Americans' book reading habits alert agents that a potential threat has been identified. This little incident would be funny if it was not so fundamentally chilling.   ...  If he can obtain a copy without coming under scrutiny, it might be a good idea for Bush to read Mao's Little Red Book and learn what happens to leaders who believe their own propaganda."

When you examine the original news story, as well as Manthorpe's version, it is soon obvious that there are many serious problems with it that should have made editors (and other journalists) extremely skeptical about its credibility:

  1. The story was based on the professors' second-hand accounts of a conversation they'd had with the student, but the student was never interviewed for the story, and in fact he and his family refused to talk to reporters.

  2. Hundreds of millions of copies Mao's Little Red Book, a book once rivalling the Bible in circulation, have been printed. There are not enough police officers in the entire world to monitor even a small fraction of the copies still in circulation, and why on earth would anybody want to? More importantly, why would a journalist believe the American government would track down and interrogate a student who requested a copy of this innocuous book from the library?

  3. The story did not include any response from the US government about these second-hand allegations. Had anyone bothered to ask, they would have learned (as the original paper eventually did in a story on December 21st) that the Department of Homeland Security doesn't have any agents of its own. As an FBI spokesperson pointed out: "I have never heard that we would go after someone because of a book," said Gail Marcinkiewicz, who works in the FBI's Boston office. "That event in itself is not a criminal activity. I can't imagine how we would follow up something like that. Everyone is protected under the First Amendment, which would include what you would read."

  4. Manthorpe added one piece to the story that didn't appear in the original: "Anyone wanting to read such inflammatory literature is suspect and the computers that keep constant watch on Americans' book reading habits alert agents that a potential threat has been identified".  I have no idea what his source is for this incredible statement, but I think it's safe to say that it isn't true.

This story was exposed as a hoax in news stories run on the 24th of December here after the student confessed to one of his professors that he lied. The Boston Globe , no friend to the Bush administration, stated that it had previously "decided not to write a story about his assertion, because of doubts about its veracity."

My complaint to the BC Press council:

On the 20th of December, the day Manthorpe's op-ed piece appeared in the Sun, I submitted a letter to the editor (by e-mail) pointing out that the story had "all the earmarks of an urban legend."

On the morning of the 21st of December, I sent a copy of this letter (by e-mail) to the editor-in-chief of the Vancouver Sun. Ms. Graham replied that afternoon: "Thank you for your email. We are looking into this and will get back to you."

On the evening of the 21st of December, I sent a copy of a story about the incident to Ms. Graham, highlighting three areas that I felt were further evidence that the student's story was falling apart.

On the 22nd of December, I sent an e-mail to Ms. Graham explaining that I was concerned about how long it was taking to investigate Manthorpe's piece since it was clear that the story it was based on was not supported by the facts. There was no reply.

On the 24th of December, I sent an e-mail to Ms. Graham, copied to Fazil Mihlar, editorial pages editor. In this message I supplied them with the URL for the Boston Globe story that confirmed the hoax. Once again, there was no reply.

The BC Press council Code of Practice states that: "A newspaper's first duty is to provide the public with accurate information. Newspapers should correct inaccuracies promptly." It also says: "...newspapers and journalists shall strive to avoid expressing comment and conjecture as established fact."

I think The Vancouver Sun owes its readers an explanation about how an obvious hoax was ever allowed to serve as the basis for Manthorpe's column, and why this column wasn't immediately retracted as soon as the problem was brought to their attention.


The Boston Globe

Student's tall tale revealed


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