This Mike Was Not So Wise

By Michael Kaufman

You won’t find my face on Facebook, my space on MySpace or my tweets on Twitter. I’d much rather talk to someone in person or write complete sentences to express my thoughts than exchange messages in code. As you read these words, tens of thousands of people across the globe are pecking away at  keyboards large and small, writing messages like “lol,” “brb,” “lmao,” “gtg,” “rofl,” and “wtf.” So maybe it is not my place to comment on the fuss created by Mike Wise, sports columnist for the Washington Post, who tweeted his way to a one-month suspension by intentionally using his Twitter account to plant a false story.  But I’ll do it anyway.

What the hell was he thinking? Or as someone has probably tweeted by now: “wthwht?”

Wise, a columnist at The New York Times before moving to the Post in 2004, explained that he wanted to illustrate how sloppy sports journalism has become thanks to social networking and the blogosphere.  On Monday he posted the tweet heard round the world: “Roethlisberger will get five games, I’m told.”

That would be Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League, who faces a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Speculation had been circulating that Roethlisberger’s suspension would be reduced. Wise got the not-so-wise idea to use  that to show how easy it is for people to plant false information online…. and to expose how little effort is spent nowadays in checking facts. Indeed, his planted “story” was immediately picked up by several media outlets, including the Miami Herald and ProFootballTalk.

A few hours after posting, Wise proudly revealed the truth about the hoax on his radio show. But to his surprise, instead of winning kudos for a masterful expose, he was roundly criticized. Furious sports bloggers denounced him and the Post, many complaining that both had lost their credibility.

Wise then tweeted a clumsy explanation.  “As part of a bit on my show today, I tried to test the accuracy of social media reporting,” he wrote. “Probably not the best way to go about experiment. But in the end, it proved two things: 1. I was right about nobody checking facts or sourcing and 2. I’m an idiot. Apologies to all involved.”

Later he was even more contrite, if not more eloquent:  “I’m sorry if I threw anyone off in my zeal to show the danger of social networking and who runs with stuff.” These apologies were not enough to appease the higher ups at the Post.

As Greg Sandoval of CNET News noted, “In addition to the ethical questions, Wise also failed to correctly calculate Twitter’s growing influence as a news source. If he looks upon Twitter as a playground or lab experiment, he should know that 190 million people visit the site every month. Many use it as a news aggregation service and early-warning system. Hot stories spread fast via the service…..But even in the digital age, some of the old rules still apply: people don’t like being misled. “

Sandoval also took issue with Wise’s claim that the hoax had proved him right. “His exercise proved nothing. Wise’s experiment was flawed from the start.  On his Twitter account, Wise identifies himself as a Post reporter. If he was trying to prove that nobody checks out unverified information, he must know that the Post’s name automatically lends the information credibility. It’s not unreasonable for other journalists to assume a report from a Post writer was properly checked out….The Post helped expose the conspiracy behind the Watergate break in and bring down a sitting president (Richard Nixon). Why shouldn’t anyone believe the paper when it says a quarterback will see a five-game suspension?”

“Mike did not follow our guidelines and has since apologized for it,” the Washington Post said in a statement to the Huffington Post. “We take these matters very seriously; however, we do not discuss personnel issues.”

“Seems overly harsh to me,” Post media writer Howard Kurtz tweeted in response to the punishment.  I agree with Kurtz. If they are going to suspend Wise for a month for misrepresenting by one game the length of a professional football player’s suspension, imagine the punishment that could be meted out for failing to investigate the lies and hoaxes planted to beat the drums for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Some good Watergate-like investigative reporting back then might have saved countless lives.

Michael can be reached at


One Response to “This Mike Was Not So Wise”

  1. Valerie Lucznikowska Says:

    The Post should check the case of Jane Acre and Steve Wilson against Fox News in which the Florida Court of Appeals unanimously found there is no rule against distorting or falsifying the news in the United States. Telling the truth is an FCC “policy” and not a law they found.


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