Alaska Airlines and the death of truth

Blogger Jeremy Hermann had a pretty darn scary experience a while back when his Alaska Airlines flight suddenly lost cabin pressure and had to make an emergency landing. He managed to capture some photographs of the event and wrote about it on his weblog, a story that’s been picked up by a variety of other bloggers.
But here’s where it gets interesting: In addition to supportive comments, Jeremy also received some critical and insulting comments on his weblog, comments whose logged IP address, according to Jeremy, makes them seem to come from within the block of addresses allocated to Alaska Airlines itself.
Though IP addresses can be spoofed, hackers can break into networks, and logging systems can glitch, the doubts about the identity of the commenter, who identified himself as “Ralph”, were insufficient to stem the flood of anti-Alaska Airlines commentary in the blogosphere.

Some bloggers are a bit circumspect (Robert Scoble, for example, says that he’s “still not sure an Alaska Airlines employee wrote those comments”), but most bloggers are just jumping in, feet first. For example, Jeremy Pepper writes “Alaska Airlines employees have gone nasty comment happy”.
Mike Stopforth notes: “Alaska employee or employees taking the �initiative� to defend the good name of their employer. However, if this is the case, Alaska�s representative/s have underestimated Jeremy, who is resourceful enough to be able to find out where �anonymous� comments, like the ones from Ralph and Jet, originate from. This is potentially a PR nightmare for Alaska.”
I’ll use Jeff Jarvis for the last example here: “Jeremy tracks nasty, anonymous comments on his blog to an Alaska Airways IP address. When will they ever learn, when will they everrrr learn?”
So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that I remember a kinder, gentler era when people – and companies – were considered innocent until proven guilty. As this story demonstrates, we’ve long since left that sort of naivety (trust?) behind and now if someone alleges something, that’s enough for the rest of the online community to jump into action.
Even if you don’t agree with the way that the bloggers themselves portray the situation, what can you make of the hundreds of comments from people who even believe that the inane and incoherent ramblings of an alleged Alaska Airlines employee are an official statement from the company?
This is citizen journalism at its worst, actually, the kind of terrible “yellow journalism” memorialized in Citizen Kane that characterized the early 20th century and should have been long since laid to rest here in the beginnings of the 21st.
Now we seem to have communication by innuendo, a sort of digital game of telephone where one person writes about an experience then it’s retold, reinterpreted, morphed and commented upon without regard to that pesky thing called truth.
Whether or not an Alaska Airlines employee posted comments to the blog, I’m troubled by how quickly an allegation became characterized as a fact, and then became the basis for everyone offering up free public relations advice to the Airline.
Is this really what media and communication is going to look like with us bloggers leading the charge? And do we really want to go there?

7 comments on “Alaska Airlines and the death of truth

  1. Again we have the mob rules with the bloggers. I read the comments and thought, “so what.” Maybe Jeremy was wrong about the burning smell ’cause he was so scared. I don’t know what drove Jeremy to expose the IPs, allege a conspiracy, and not just delete or engage the comments, but, as you note, the larger issue is why the bloggers think that they make the rules or what difference it makes if Scoble thinks it was or wasn’t an Alaska Airlines employee. Blogging crediblity takes another hit, when the conversations degrade so quickly. What PR firm would tell Alaska Airlines to be sure to comment right away on Jeremy’s blog cause he’s going to get even more pissed off. We saw that with Jarvis and Dell. Bloggers are becoming bullies.

  2. This is a big problem and one that will erode the growing trust we’re feeling in the independent voices of “citizen journalists.” I address the issue in my book
    I.e. the credibility of the blogosphere is lowered a couple of notches when bloggers either 1. aren’t who they say they are or 2. don’t check facts, don’t check sources and jump hastily to conclusions… and thereby spread erroneous information.
    I suspect that most of them are not doing this on purpose. There’s no mean spiritedness involved. This is NOT the “online lynch mob” that Forbes Magazine wrote about.
    It’s happening in part because citizen journalists are just that – amateur journalists. They’re in a rush to be the first to publish or comment on whatever the hot story is. So they omit the necessary step of checking sources, double-checking facts and all that old-fashioned (boring) stuff that MSM journalists are trained to do.
    I’m particularly sensitive to this because I WAS a MSM reporter for several decades before the Web and blogging came along.
    The Kryptonite incident is the most glaring example of this kind of rush to judgment – because, as it turns out, the real story was much more nuanced than we were all led to believe. (Both Dave and I have written about it.) When I interviewed Kryptonite PR manager Donna Tocci she told me one thing that stuck in my mind…
    Not one single blogger called her to check the story out with her before blogging their version of it. In contrast, MSM reporters and editors were on the phone with her from Day 1 of the incident to get her version of the story.
    Not sure what the answer is here, other than to call strongly for more restraint on the part of bloggers and encourage them to learn how to be “real” professional journalists if that’s the role they want to play.

  3. Debbie seems to be suggesting that bloggrs have some sort of obligation to contact companies to get their side of the story, but I don’t think that flys very far in the blogosphere. For most of us, Blogging is 110% about expressing our *own* opinions. If we *happen* to mention a few odd facts interspersed in our opinions, then of course we should do a diligent job of verifying facts, to the extent that it is easily within our means. But if time or other constraints preclude a thorough vetting on facts vs. suspicions, we do the best we can. That’s a key difference between blogging and journalism, regardless of whether you consider either to be a professional or amaeur activity.
    I myself frequently fire off emails to corporate PR types to chase down “facts”, but it’s not a reliable process. If I get a response back within a few hours (as I did with one mega-company last week), I consider myself very lucky. Blogging is a very “right here and right now, or never” activity for us bloggrs who aren’t being paid handsomely for our efforts, so suggesting that we sync up with the pace and agenda of the corporate PR efforts is a truly absurd request.
    That said, I do have isues with how Mr. Hermann and others handled themselves in this situation, but I don’t think this is a case of someone attempting to write an MSM-quality report of his experience, but a question of how constrained do average bloggers need to be when “reporting” (in the casual sense) something that happened to them, what it was like, and how they felt about it, not as a big-deal journalism effort, but the online equivalent of coming into work and telling co-workers about some adventure you just survived. To put it simply: Spontaneity matters. If he and others felt constrained to make a full, fact-vetted, profesional-quality report on the situation, there’s a good chance that he and others wouldn’t even have *bothered* to blog about it, and that would be our loss.
    One suggestion for companies: Have a dedicated “blogger” email inbox so that bloggers *can* quickly get responses to questions of fact that arise and to get their prompt “their side of the story”.
    There is also the issue of the level of care and professionalism that one uses when commenting on someone else’s blog as opposed to posting a new topic. Sure, facts and truth are just as importanat in comments, but comments are also intended to be even more “off the cuff”, and a little unscripted “color” doesn’t do too much harm.
    Truth? I’m convinced that the average American would prefer a great “story” (tall tale) filled with innuendo and half/dubious-truths than a scholarly treatise that is true but boring. Somewhere in the middle is the “balance” that we should shoot for.
    Some blogs and bloggers *will* strive for fact, truth, hard-core due-diligence. Some will strive for tabloid-sensationalism.
    I’m not sure which concerns me most, well-meaning but lazy bloggers who play fast and loose with “facts” or corporate/professional types who focus on the quality of their spin than on the value that their customers receive.
    One final “truth”: I suspect that a significant fraction of the general public is *willing* to presume that companies are *guilty* until cleared, and even then presumed to be guilty anyway. That won’t change until we cease seeing an endless stream of high-profile headlines chronicling corporate shenanighans.
    Dave ponders “I’m troubled by how quickly an allegation became characterized as a fact, and then became the basis for everyone offering up free public relations advice to the Airline.” I agree that it’s troubling, but that is the way a lot of people operate in or out of the blogosphere. I think one answer is that a lot of us *do* like to check facts and organizations should endeavor to make it a *lot* easier to do so.
    Technical query: If you are sitting in one of the airline travel clubs (e.g., Alaska Airlines Board Room) with your notebook computer connected to their Wi-fi or local network, won’t your IP *look* like it belongs to the airline’s sub-network?
    — Jack Krupansky

  4. I agree – Most Americans don’t want the truth about any situation! I think they’re not happy unless whatever passes for news these days isn’t completely negative and/or sappy sentimental, and 100% dramatic! Are their lives that boring, that mundane? So few read blogs, compared to their FOX or evening news, and even fewer actually read books, that I wouldn’t worry about anyone’s undies getting in a wad over a weblog! Kinda makes the reading more interesting, doesn’ it? Reading their half-cocked, off the cuff comments gets to be kind of delicious in it’s own way. Makes ME feel vastly more intellectual and experienced — hehe, yeah, yeah, I’m a snob. So sue me.

  5. Good point Dave. I wanted to use the Alaska Airlines situation with comments as a jumping off point about blogs and PR. Unfortunately, it does appear that blogs have become bully pulpits (give me a break, computers break, we live in a disposable economy and this is not a shock).
    I updated my post to include the word “possibly” because you are right. We do not know if they are employees. Nor do I think that the PR firm or PR people internally would do such an inane thing to attack someone on their own blog.
    As for Debbie’s comment – I am one of the few PR bloggers that does call companies before I post. I interviewed FedEx, I spoke with Kryptonite, I called Six Apart for a future post, I called America West Airlines for a post on Adam Curry, I even tried to call Alaska Airlines but they were gone for the day. Why did I post – because while so-called thought leaders were posting about citizen journalism, I saw that no one was talking about the PR implications (whether or not the IP addresses were real, it was still an online crisis for the company).
    But, well, this is going to become an issue for PR, communications and HR more and more down the road.

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