Here's another cautionary tale about journalism in the internet age. I've recently seen a rash of blog posts and online news factoids like this one about a $1.2 trillion dollar lawsuit filed against Oprah Winfrey by a poet named Damon Lloyd Goffe.
This lawsuit is preposterous on many levels, so it's an irresistible story for bloggers and news outlets that need a quick, sensational post. The problem is, the posts are all wrong.
According to most accounts, the lawsuit was filed on July 31st, 2009. But in fact that is the date the frivolous lawsuit was thrown out of court, not the date it was filed.
If you poke around long enough you can find one responsible blogger who wrote about this a few days earlier: Michael Doyle, a legal affairs reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau.
On August 3rd, Doyle posted in his blog "Suits & Sentences" that Goffe's suit was dismissed on Friday, July 31st. Doyle also remarks that Goffe also filed another suit against NBC last month claiming:
"My life is been recorded and broadcasted since 2003 via satellite/cable network Bravo/Bravo 2, whose parent company is NBC/Universal, as well as the internet under the title 'the will smith show' and previously 'real world.'"
You can't make this stuff up.
So how did the false version of this story get such traction in the celebrity blogosphere? Three of the blogs that I saw pointed to aggregator sites, which in turn pointed to that traditional fount of disinformation, The National Enquirer.
The Enquirer's deliberately undated article, posted after July 31st, claimed the suit was filed on July 31st, rather than dismissed on that date. Other articles like this one point back to the World Entertainment News Network, an entertainment wire service. It's hard to say who got the story from whom, but it's easy to see why those "original" sources would suppress the truth of the matter.
Perhaps Enquirer editors knew the story would get more mileage if it "forgot" to mention that the crackpot lawsuit was already thrown out of court? That kind of story won't go viral. Much better (for their website traffic anyway) to pretend that Oprah faces a real threat, fact-checking be damned.