On Saturday, the New York Times published an article about Charleston shooter Dylan Roof’s newly discovered manifesto and cache of selfies. It would have been a pretty straightforward news story had the Times not been fooled by a teen into reporting that Roof was a diehard fan of My Little Pony and was obsessed with 9/11 memes.
Fusion has the story about how Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner Frances Robles ended up reporting info about Roof that was actually straight up invented up by some random kid. Both the Times’ screw up and Fusion’s reporting on it comes from a 16-year-old British boy named Benjamin Wareing, who provided the Times with the made-up information and then turned around and exposed the paper on his blog. (This post accepts that Benjamin Wareing, despite having already pranked the media, is indeed a 16-year-old British boy named Benjamin Wareing.)
According to Fusion, a friend of Wareing’s named Sadrak Ramirez had become Dylann Roof’s Facebook friend shortly before the massacre in Charleston. After the shooting, Ramirez was inundated by Facebook messages from reporters writing about Roof, and he directed Robles, and likely others, to Wareing, who presumably passed himself off as a long-distance internet friend of Roof’s.
From there, Wareing and Ramirez, per Fusion, told Robles that Roof had kept a personal Tumblr, that had since been deleted, which included “memes” along with his writings about My Little Pony. Here is Wareing in his own words, from a blog post from Sunday titled “How I Screwed With the Biggest News Outlet in the World”:
We chose to focus on the “Brony” scene of “My Little Pony”, emphasizing the fact that Roof was a major Brony. We also wanted a bit of best modern-day internet can give; memes. We told this idiot of a reporter that Dylann was obsessed with 911 ‘memes’. Of course, we have no way of knowing if this is true. As we expected, the New York Times reporter took to this like a fat kid in a candy store. No questions asked.
Robles directly quoted Wareing in the story, writing:
Benjamin Wareing, a blogger in Britain, said the writings are nearly identical to blog posts that Mr. Roof posted several months ago on a separate Tumblr page. Mr. Wareing was preparing to write an essay on the dangers of Tumblr and troubled youths, so he took notes on the writings.
“He just made really stupid but obvious statements about people from other races,” Mr. Wareing said in an email. “He would call black citizens ‘nuggets’ and such. He never made direct threats at all on Tumblr, at least it didn’t seem like that, just weird ramblings about how he felt he ‘didn’t fit in.’”
It indeed appears as if Robles took all of this at face value and wrote it into her story, though at some point she either became suspicious, or aware, that everything Wareing had told her was bunk. According to Fusion, the watchdog site Newsdiffs shows that Wareing’s interview as well as the line about 9/11 and My Little Pony was removed from the story only three hours after it was published on Saturday afternoon.
Robles refused to comment to Fusion, so it’s unclear exactly how she vetted Wareing, if at all. But this is the second time this year that the New York Times has printed the fabrications of a shit-stirring teenager its reporter had found via the internet.
Back in April, in a front page trendpiece on the popularity of vaping among teens, reporter Sabrina Tavernise quoted a Twitter user named @drugleaf as saying that he had quit cigarettes thanks to a vape endorsed by the rapper Lil Ugly Mane. @drugleaf, who was livetweeting his punking of the Times as it was happening, was merely a Twitter prankster posing as the kid the Times quoted as “Joe Stevonson.”
In @drugleaf’s case, the Times didn’t do much to factcheck his story, contacting him after his interview only so that he could clarify his location. But, in both cases, there’s only so much that could have been done to verify each teen’s claims—it is certainly plausible that a teen might use a rapper’s vape to quit cigarettes, or that Dylan Roof had blogged on a since-deleted Tumblr.
But nonetheless, in each situation, the Times missed easy warning signs that they were being fucked with. In the vaping story, the Times printed @drugleaf as saying that “the only thing that’s really missing is feeling like your entire mouth is coated in dirt.” Wareing, meanwhile, was quoted as saying that Roof “would call black citizens ‘nuggets’,” and in a screenshot of his correspondence with Robles that he put on his blog, he wrote that he had “never met someone as apparently troubled as [Roof] since my old friend in primary school who used to lick people’s seats!”
These should have probably raised red flags for the reporters involved. In the case of Wareing’s remark about chair licking, it would have been wise of Robles to ask the teen what he meant by saying that he had “met” Roof. (She also, for instance, should have asked Wareing to recall Roof’s supposed Tumblr URL.)
Encountering people on the internet who might want to prank you is going to be the reality for reporters as time drags us all along, and it seems obvious that, at the moment, the Times has an institutional inability to suss out the fakers.
There might be no solution more simple than “try harder,” though perhaps the Times might consider creating the position of Teen Copy Editor.