We were somewhere on Route 202 outside of Dunham when I started cackling in the backseat. “Oh my god, they really did it this time.” I could barely contain myself. “Look at this!” I said, shoving my phone in front of my soon-to-be-wife, sitting in front of me. “LOOOOOK.”
CNN had just run a segment where they grimly noted the presence of an ISIS flag held aloft in London’s Pride parade, called in a national security expert, and pondered for ages on what the appearance of such an “unnerving sight” all might mean. The homophobic death cult had finally come to the West, and was openly declaring it’s presence—and would you believe that CNN were the only ones there?
“If it was a political statement, it was very subtle,” the reporter says at one point.
Well, not so much. The flag, described by the on-scene reporter as having writing that looked more “gobbledygook” than Arabic was actually just a flag covered in dildos and butt-plugs.
Dildos and butt-plugs.
Anyhow, this absurd pearl clutching by the Most Trusted Name in Whatever the Fuck They Do Now sent a flood of chemically stuff right to my glee-centre. Nothing quite delights me as much as Serious People mistaking something vulgar and obviously not real as a sign of doom in our time. Especially when the self-serious dimwits are caught in the act.
But it reminded me of something a little closer to home.
This winter, CBC Toronto’s intrepid investigative reporter John Lancaster got a hot tip from some police sources that the Toronto cops had stumbled on something he should know about. Something mysteriously terrifying. Mere (hundreds of) metres from the tennis centre for this summer’s Pan Am games they found a mysteriously sophisticated tunnel. The tunnel was so sophisticated, and mysterious, it had a separate, soundproof chamber for a gas generator.
Time to call in an expert. A national security expert. In this case, Ray Bosivert a former deputy so-and-so from CSIS is brought on to pontificate on the meaning of things. (This is all starting to seem familiar, yeah?) What could a tunnel, long enough for, say, a whole sleeper cell to stand upright in, be there for?
“They would want some assurance this is not targeting the games, or not targeting any other facility around there,” including critical infrastructure, Bosivert says, by way of aimless pontification.
It’s at this point that Lancaster tries to take a step back and get some perspective on this whole thing. I’ll quote him here at length:
“I think we have to clarify this, though, at this point no one is suggesting this is some sort of national security exercise. But they have, in fact, notified various agencies regarding this. Because they’re not taking any chances given what happened yesterday with al-Shabaab claiming to target malls and given the climate we’ve seen in Ottawa the past several months as well.”
Translation ‘No one is at all suggesting this is terrorism. Any of those things I just clearly laid out in a context that would make you think we are most-fucking-definitely suggesting this is terrorism, are not that at all.’
It’s always terrorism, isn’t it?
Except, once again, it wasn’t. It was just some guy building a grown-up fort with a friend. (A fort that was sadly filled in by the state, because it might be terrorism. Maclean’s has the actual, and really wonderful, story here.)
Things spread from there. A sensational news report, from Toronto, based on anonymous sources is perfect fodder for the “matching”—or “scalping”—culture of the modern newsroom. Just tack a “: report” on to the end of your headline and sprinkle a few “according to a CBC report”s through your copy, and presto! News!
(Side note: I’ve written dozens and dozens of these things when I worked for the now-defunct Postmedia wire service. I’m as guilty of this shit as anyone else.)
What never happened in any of the initial news reports was someone asking whether this was something less nefarious. Those matching the story couldn’t, remember, they didn’t have any of the sources, they just had Lancaster’s work.
Unfortunately, because the story wasn’t nearly as hilarious and off-base as a bunch of mocking dildos on a terroristic flag, CBC never really had to back away from their report. Their reporter heard what he heard from his sources and that was that. There wasn’t anything false about it—the police really were mystified and the thing really was near a tennis stadium—so there was no correction to be made.
Their error wasn’t in fact, but in woeful and incurious presentation; not incorrect, but still wrong.
Next time, before we break out the national security ding-dongs, let’s break out a bit of common sense.