The Story of a Non-Story
How a bunch of media outlets got their coverage of an obscure Massachusetts bill really, really wrong.
This lengthy and meandering tale is ultimately about nothing, but along the way might prove instructive for anyone wondering why so many people walk around with their heads filled with a vast, expanding trove of untrue nonsense.
I begin at the end—or, more accurately, at the point when I stopped merely rolling my eyes at this episode and wanted to start strangling people. That point was Sunday afternoon, when a news item appeared on Boston.com, declaring that Republican Richard Ross of Wrentham has filed a bill to prohibit someone who is going through a divorce from having sex in his or her own home.
As I began writing this Monday morning, that article (written by a Boston.com staffer with a Globe.com email address, and with a Globe Newspaper Company copyright, for whatever that currently means) offered no source, citation, link, or hint of any kind suggesting that it was cribbed from someone else’s reporting—it appears, as written, to be the original discovery of reporter Jack Pickell. That would be some mighty coincidence, that he stumbled upon the same obscure, dormant bill that had by chance been repeatedly posted about and spread across the internet for the previous 48 hours.
In fact, the original version of Pickell’s story did reference and link to a BostInno article posted Friday afternoon. When someone sent an email to Pickell alerting him of an error he had inserted while lifting the item, Pickell corrected the mistake, but also removed the BostInno reference and link. (Clarification: I did not intend to imply that Boston.com removed the link to BostInno deliberately to avoid giving credit. Also, I should not have used the word “lifted,” which implies something stronger than I intended.)
Boston.com is hardly alone, however, in offering no indication of prior origin of the story. BostInno provides no clue that I can find for its discovery, although its post appeared, surely not by coincidence, a few hours after the first report that caused me to eyeroll as it crossed my Twitter feed around midday Friday. Three days later and no hint of provenance accompanied the reporting of the story early Monday morning on MSNBC, in between items on Nate Silver’s Senate predictions and Jimmy Kimmel’s interview with the Clinton family.
Before continuing back toward the story’s point of origin, I want to clear up some things about the bill that can be misunderstood by those who make no effort to determine whether they are understanding them correctly.
Contrary to what you might gather from phrases such as “proposed by state Senator Richard Ross,” “Senator Richard J. Ross proposed,” and “If Massachusetts State Sen. Richard J. Ross gets his way,” Ross did not sponsor the bill, and he does not support it. In fact, the bill has no legislative sponsors, no support, and is in no way under consideration by anybody.
The bill was submitted under the Commonwealth’s “right of free petition” by Robert LeClair, an 83-year-old former Wrentham selectman of strong opinions, who was president for years of an organization devoted to fathers and custody rights. Massachusetts, with its nearly 400-year devotion to self-governance, populist energy, and participatory citizenship—many towns still decide things by show of hands at meetings open to all residents—is unsurprisingly one of the few states that offers its citizens a direct avenue to submit legislation for consideration. The only barrier is that a state legislator must actually file the paperwork, but that does not constitute or indicate sponsorship, support, or approval. From what I gather checking around with some current and former staffers, many legislators aren’t even aware that they are allowed to deny a citizen petition request; others are aware but choose a blanket policy of approving all constituents who petition. “Whenever I receive a bill from a citizen, I will file the bill,” state senator Will Brownsberger, co-chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee, tells me. “I don’t think that most legislators see themselves as a gateway for those.”
To do otherwise would be dumb politics as well as a thumb in old John Adams’s eye. These petitions—a bunch of which get dropped every two years before the session’s January filing deadline—are usually brought by people with exceptional zeal and energy for an idea that they can’t find anyone on Beacon Hill to support. So, there’s no possibility that filing the bill could somehow accidentally lead to its passage, but significant likelihood that the petitioner could be a real pain in the ass to a hometown rep who refused to honor the people’s sacred right to petition their government.
Nevertheless, some—including Ross, according to the reporter who got this all going (and who we’ll get to below)—might pick and choose which to file, based on some standard of merit. That’s problematic: It could imply considered support of those chosen over those rejected, which is exactly the case being made by some, including Ross’s Democratic challenger Dylan Hayre, after Ross’s office made clear that he merely filed the petition for LeClair but does not support it.
Not that the misperception of Ross’s support is even close to catching up with the erroneous reports. As I am finishing this post around noon, Boston.com has added a correction noting, without explanation, that the article failed to mention that Ross filed the bill by request. Other reports have continued to pile up all morning; some, like FoxBoston, are passing along Ross’s insistence that he doesn’t support the bill (he put out a release this morning, as I wrote this post); others not so much, as with a Reason.com piece blaming Ross for this “particularly egregious example of politicians’ overreach and arrogance.”
All of this could easily have been avoided in the first place. Ross’s absence as sponsor and LeClair’s identity as petitioner are on the bill, which many of the reports linked to. So, too, is the bill’s filing date of January 17, 2013. If that doesn’t make the story stale enough for you, there’s also a note that a “similar bill” was filed in the previous legislative session. In fact, LeClair has been filing this bill, and others, for years.
One could also have called up LeClair himself, and he would have told you—as he told me—that he is unaware of any new developments with the bill. He was still just learning of the sudden spate of reporting on his bill when we spoke, around 1 p.m. Monday. “I don’t know why” they’ve suddenly taken interest, he told me.
On the grand scale of legislative proposals, concern about a spouse exposing children to adulterous behavior in their home is not a particularly looney tunes idea. Adultery remains illegal in many states, after all. More relevantly, it’s not uncommon in divorce proceedings for the spouse who has moved out—usually the husband—to ask the judge to prohibit the other spouse, pending finalization of the divorce, from bringing dates home and/or having them spend the night when the kids are there. Some father’s-rights advocates in the Commonwealth believe that Massachusetts judges are far more likely than those elsewhere to deny such requests, because as secular liberal Harvard elitists they are unbothered by (I’m paraphrasing here) someone’s wife whoring around, in his bed, in the house he’s paying for, in front of his kids. LeClair’s bill would restore balance by setting the default to “no whoring around,” and placing the burden on the wife to get the judge to issue an exemption.
That is not exactly LeClair’s argument, to be fair. He believes, rightly or wrongly, that his bill would reduce domestic violence—the topic of a book he has recently finished writing, and hopes to shop to a publisher. “A male seeing another male in his house, with his wife, in front of his kids,” is likely to end badly, LeClair says.
Mind you, I’m not arguing for the merits of the bill. I’m just trying to explain that this “news” is about a single resident of the 6.5 million or so in the Commonwealth, with no position of state authority or power, proposing a well-intentioned if ill-advised law, which has literally no advocates, sponsors, or proponents in the state legislature, and which has been sitting around for years without any recent action of any kind meriting attention. “I didn’t expect anything to happen on that bill,” LeClair says. “I never do.”
Which returns us to the puzzle of that attention—and to my absolute favorite item of the past few days: a 130-word snippet from The Daily Beast. Posted and tweeted out at very nearly the same time Friday afternoon as the BostInno post, this unbylined item stands out for two reasons. First, it includes the surprising falsehood that “The Massachusetts state legislature conducted hearings this week” on the bill. Second, it actually provides a source and link—to an article in national left-leaning news site Raw Story, dated May 18, 2011.
It turns out that this same story made much the same rounds—with much the same misunderstanding—three years ago. Links from Raw Story and elsewhere suggest that the story was propelled that time by a now-archived article in the Boston Herald, for which Chris Cassidy did actual reporting. The notion that the bill had a hearing is, nevertheless, a considerable stretch; the perennially swamped Judiciary Committee held a hearing on May 18, 2011, theoretically covering a vast slew of bills broadly relating to custodial issues. “That’s standard procedure,” says Brownsberger, who is heading the same process now with hundreds of bills, including LeClair’s. “Staff goes through the bills, grouping them into categories, so every bill does get a hearing.”
That doesn’t mean anyone will necessarily testify on or even mention LeClair’s bill at its eventual hearing this spring. So far “this particular bill has not gotten any interest or concerns,” Brownsberger says. Similarly, reports from the time make clear that the bulk of the testimony in the Gardner Auditorium that May day in 2011 was for bills on human trafficking, joint custody definition, and, above all, the Alimony Reform Act. LeClair says he was not notified in time. “I was never informed, so I did not testify,” he says. It’s unlikely anyone else mentioned his bill that day, but anyone interested can watch the video footage to find out.
Regardless, Daily Beast‘s mistaking a 2011 article for current events does not explain the sudden renewed interest in LeClair’s bill; I’m guessing the Beast found the Raw Story while Googling after seeing it elsewhere because they were not first with it.
As best I can tell, the first report was that first one I rolled my eyes at when it hit my Twitter feed: a Scott Keyes article posted by Think Progress midday Friday.
Think Progress is part of the Center for American Progress (CAP) amalgam of entities, which was born from a concerted effort during the 2004 election cycle, which I reported on at the time, to show wealthy liberals how their wealthy conservative counterparts had funded a vast conservative network of think tanks, publications, websites, political action committees, and other outlets—and to convince those wealthy liberals to step up and fund their own versions to counteract that influence. Many sharp and talented people have passed through CAP, but the fact nevertheless is that Keyes, a senior reporter for Think Progress who previously worked as a campaign operative, is essentially employed to push out items about how awful Republicans are.
In an email exchange, Keyes told me that he came across the bill thanks to an alert for legislative action relating to divorce law, a particular interest of his. That alert was triggered last Thursday when the Judiciary Committee extended the reporting date for the bill to June 30 as Keyes correctly writes in his article. That had nothing to do with actually considering the legislation, however; as State House News Service reported, that day the committee extended the reporting date as a procedural matter for close to 800 bills, as the two new co-chairs struggle to triage the mountain of legislation.
To be fair, Keyes added an update to his post fairly quickly, passing along to readers that Ross’s office told him about not actually supporting the bill and all that. I don’t know what percentage of that article’s vast, growing number of readers have seen that update; as I write, the article’s counter of Facebook shares alone is approaching 15,000, which I think I can safely say is more than the total number for everything I have ever written in my entire career combined. Certainly most who have or will read about the bill elsewhere (like Boston.com, where Pickell’s item has crossed the 2,000 Facebook share mark) won’t see that update, since, as I noted above, most aren’t bothering to point back to where they found out the (erroneous) information they were presenting. BostInno—also apparently doing strong eyeball business—doesn’t have any update as of this writing; nor does the Daily Beast.
It’s not just that it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle—it’s that nobody wants to. Splash your hit, get your views, and move along to the next thing. There’s no punishment in store for any of them; the incentives are all rewarding exactly what they’re doing. No truth, no consequences.