Huffington Post, Shelley Garland and editorial responsibility

Edit (19/04): All the details of this saga have now been revealed. See Verashni Pillay’s post, and its linked interview with “Shelley Garland”.

Update (22/04): The Press Ombudsman’s ruling is out, and it’s pretty damning for HuffPo.

A quick recap for those of you who don’t know the story. On April 13, Huffington Post South Africa published an opinion piece, by someone identified as Shelley Garland, headlined “Could it be time to deny white men the franchise?“.

The consequences of publishing this piece were fairly predictable. For some, this was further confirmation that HuffPoSA has a political or ideological agenda – here, an anti-male and anti-white agenda.

Others called it “fake news”, which it certainly wasn’t, because fake news means something other than “opinion pieces you don’t agree with” (whether or not those pieces are written by fictitious characters – a point that won’t yet make sense to you if you’re not familiar with the story).

Some of both of these (and other) groups started writing angry and sometimes hateful messages to the HuffPo, telling them that they were racist, misogynistic, “junk” and so forth.

So far, there’s really not much of interest going on. Wrong-headed, factually-incorrect, and even racist drivel gets posted on blogs every day. And the authors of those blogs (or their editors, in the case of blogs like HuffPo Voices) get angry responses all the time also.

This case is (so far) only of (limited) interest for two reasons: first, that some people think of HuffPo as a publication worthy of serious attention, and reacted accordingly instead of ignoring the blog post; and second, that the Editor-in-Chief (Verashni Pillay) and the Voices editor leveraged the outrage to garner more clicks, and therefore more advertising revenue.

Hlongwane did this by mocking the outrage and bragging about the clicks, while Pillay deployed her full editorial authority with a (qualified) defence of the piece, calling its analysis “pretty standard for feminist theory“, and also publishing a selection of the hate-mail received.

This is the point at which things start get interesting, in that the piece and its arguments now move out of the “mere blog” domain, because senior editorial staff have now acted to support the opinion in question by criticising its detractors and defending its publication.

One can maintain editorial immunity of a sort by keeping the distinction between news and opinion clear. Here, that distinction was deliberately blurred, and it starts to be more reasonable to treat this as a confirming instance of the HuffPo’s – rather than just “Shelley Garland’s” – political stance.

Then it gets more interesting, as Laura Twiggs’ curiosity and very basic investigations (I say this with no disrespect, just to highlight that all it took was a little effort, rather than an undercover operation) uncovered the fact that “Shelley Garland” is a fiction.

Tom Eaton has detailed all of this in his superb chronicle of this affair, so I won’t repeat it here. I will offer one cautionary note, namely that it is of course possible that Twiggs was talking to a different fake to the one that wrote the HuffPo piece.

One reason for thinking so is that Twiggs’ Garland claimed to be a student of the University of Johannesburg, while the HuffPo editor indicates that Garland was a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The UCT claim is supported by correspondence ostensibly received by the hosts of the “Renegade Report” (RR) podcast, in which the spoofer shares his correspondence with HuffPo, including the pitch email that includes a UCT affiliation.

I say “ostensibly received” because here again, we have no way of knowing for sure that the self-professed spoofer, “Nick Shannow”, is indeed the spoofer. One of the RR hosts (Roman Cabanac) claims to know the spoofer personally, and while that’s a possibility, it’s also possible that RR themselves are party to the whole affair.

And as I write this, I see the following Tweet, indicating that Jonathan Witt – the other RR host – is the spoofer, or at least the person who set up the “Shelley Garland” email account. If this is true, then it seems to be the case that RR wrote to themselves as “Nick Shannow”, which is both amusing and rather amateurish.

But then,

This will all be untangled in time. Moving on to more interesting issues, though: I’ve previously expressed concerns regarding Verashni Pillay’s editorial choices, referencing the embarrassing story about FW de Klerk “tutoring” Mmusi Maimane that the Mail&Guardian published while she was its editor, as well as their publishing wire copy that told us “Mbeki was right on HIV/Aids”.

As I said to Pillay in the comments, with reference to the Maimane story, these embarrassments should be kept up, with a disclaimer, rather than being deleted. People should be able to see the extent of your errors, as well as your apologies for them.

Pillay’s apology for the Garland case notes that that they will in future verify the identity of their bloggers, that they will ask the Press Ombudsman for an opinion on the blog in question’s content, and that the HuffPo “understand that universal enfranchisement followed a long struggle and we fully support this”.

While that defense of a universal franchise is hardly resounding, I’m more interested in the identity-verification aspect, which I’m not persuaded is the relevant issue here.

If you choose to publish something as misguided as the Garland piece, and then give it your editorial support, you’ve chosen a stance on both the political dimension of the opinion piece, as well as your willingness to publish poorly-written and poorly fact-checked drek to get clicks.

But instead of using this incident to evaluate those editorial choices, the identity-verification thing is now being used as a smokescreen for their lack of interest in doing so.

There is a moral burden on the part of the spoofers too, whomever they are. It seems deeply unpleasant to me to target a publication and its editor in this way, given that you know you might cost someone their job by doing so.

We can disagree, and find each others’ views to be reprehensible, without stooping to these levels. I think it’s a known fact that HuffPo has a certain ideology, just as it’s a known fact that the Renegade Report likewise does.

You can make your choice to read or listen to one, both or neither of them on the basis of that. You can make your case that others should do likewise (whatever that is) by making that case on other platforms.

But I don’t think you should do it by lying and by running the risk of closing down dissenting voices and editorial choices, both because our commitment to free speech means encouraging more opinion, even if it’s bad opinion, and because effective communication presumes a commitment to truth, rather than being a troll.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.