Stories often have legs of their own. After they are written and published, they can run away on you.
Take the curious case of Dr. John Wiens, a biologist at the University of Arizona.
On Dec. 8, 2016, Dr. Wiens got his 15 minutes of fame when the British newspaper The Independent published an article in which Wiens was quoted as saying that if he had occasion to meet President-elect Donald Trump, he would tell him to “kill himself immediately.”
The article, it is almost needless to say, was picked up by the wire services and published in a number of other newspapers, both print and online.
This story quickly developed legs of its own – the kind that win 100 metre sprints.
The original Independent article carried the quote in question, but noted it was uttered as a joke.
However, the story has appeared in other outlets with the “joke” reference removed.
In Breitbart, for example, there is no indication Wiens was anything but serious.
Then the popular climate skeptic site Wattsupwiththat tweeted that a biologist had said PE Trump should kill himself.
That prompted Brandon Shollenberger, who runs the Izuru website and is well-known for his climate commentary, to call into question the veracity of the original Independent article.
In a blog article entitled “Newspaper’s fabricated quote suckers skeptics,” Shollenberger questioned the authenticity of the quote and lamented the Independent’s stealth removal of the quote in subsequent rewrites of the article.
Now, I follow Brandon on Twitter and commented on his tweet calling into the question the quote that it was doubtful the Independent fabricated a quote of that nature. We argued back and forth until I finally wrote the only proper course of action was to contact Wiens.
I emailed Wiens on Dec. 11 and received a long reply from the biologist the following day.
Wiens confirmed that he did, in fact, say Trump should kill himself, but noted the statement was made as joke:
“On Thursday, December 8, I was contacted by Ian Johnston from The Independent, ostensibly to talk about my paper on climate change and extinction that was being published in PLoS Biology (the paper actually received serious reporting by Brandie Wiekle from CBC News and others).
“Unfortunately, Mr. Johnston admitted that he had not read my paper, and apparently had little interest in talking about it. It turned out that he only wanted to talk about Donald Trump. I did not. He asked me what I would say to Donald Trump. I said that I really did not think that Donald Trump cared at all what I thought.
“Obviously, I hoped that this would be the end of the topic. He persisted. I did therefore say that Trump should “kill himself immediately” (i.e., his doing this seems about as likely as him following any recommendation from an obscure scientist like myself about stopping climate change). I then made sure that it was clear that it was a joke.”
Johnston’s original story did note it was a joke, but Wiens was nonetheless surprised it got into print:
“I also assumed, wrongly, that it (the joke) would not be reported, since the statement was meant to be ridiculous. He did NOT report my preceding statement that I did not think Trump cared what I thought. He then kept persisting with the same question about Trump.
“Next, to further indicate that I wanted to change the subject, I suggested that the UK should make its former colonies switch leaders, so that the U.S. gets Justin Trudeau and Canada gets Donald Trump (as in, to make both the U.S. and Donald Trump nicer after a few years).”
In a subsequent email, Wiens told me that he and Johnston are in disagreement over what was on or off the record.
That doesn’t surprise me in the least. Journalists are taught that once our identities are made known, anything said in our presence is publishable. A subject has to explicitly state prior to speaking that something is off the record. Most subjects don’t understand that.
As Wiens wrote in his email to me, “I recontacted Mr. Johnston over the weekend because I thought that I had said explicitly not to repeat the joke in question. He said that I had not. He removed it because I was getting violent threats.”
Still, the Independent article was changed without any indication that the offensive joke had ever been uttered.
Therein lay the problem. It was this stealth editing of the article which raised suspicions on the part of Shollenberger, prompting his own public questioning of the story and lamentation that skeptics were being none too skeptical.
The Independent did eventually include an Editor’s Note acknowledging that the joke had been removed. (The newspaper had been included in the tweets Shollenberger and I exchanged.)
Good. It’s important for news outlets to acknowledge changes in stories if they are to be taken seriously.
Dr. Wiens, for his part, regrets making the joke:
“Yes, I regret making a joke that was in poor taste. Both suicide and climate change are very serious issues. I did not think that the joke would be repeated in his article (and I thought that I asked him not to).
“I did not think that Trump was in any danger at all of committing suicide just because I said so: that is why it is a joke — he does not care what I think.
“To be clear, I did not want to talk that reporter about Trump at all, and I only agreed to talk to him about science.
“Most importantly, I regret that my joke was a distraction about an important issue that might lead to millions of deaths through the impacts (as pointed out by many people).”