Maybe you’ve heard of Andy Carvin, maybe you’ve not. I’m going to tell you about him. Actually, I’m going to tell you what I think about him and the “job” he does, which is absolutely antithetical to what I think should happen, which is that he should be confined to the proverbial dustbin of history and promptly forgotten.
But I have some pretty words, some strong words, that I’m just dying to see in the stark black of computer print on white, so you’ll have to bear with me. Or just pass this little diatribe on by.
But whatever you do, don’t try to say I’m just jealous of the name Andy Carvin has had made for himself. I’m not the least bit jealous of him. Arwa Damon, maybe. Or Harry Fear even. But Andy Carvin? Hardly.
Why do I have so much vitriol for a man I’ve never met? It’s easy really. It’s because he’s a pretender, a fake. He’s Walter Mitty with a boring job at National Public Radio that has nothing to do with journalism. But he retreated to a life on Twitter and became a fake superhero.
He even wrote a book, Distant Witness, and that’s as good a reason as any for my dislike. The title, not the writing of the book. He called it that because he believes he witnessed the Arab spring from his desk in Washington. He didn’t, any more than I did from my desk in Atlanta.
What he did was stay up till all hours retweeting all the tweets he could find out of the various Arab spring protests, adding his own indignation and outrage at what he “witnessed.” Of course, not all that much of what he retweeted was true, but Carvin thinks it best to throw it out there and let the “crowd” settle it.
Doesn’t work that way. Whenever somebody starts retweeting everything, then the real journalists have to work that much harder to find out what’s real and what’s not. As some of my relatives would say, “If you throw enough shit at the barn door, some of it’s gonna stick.” But most of it’s gonna leave a big pile of shit on the ground, and either way, somebody’s gonna have to clean the whole mess up.
That somebody will never be Andy Carvin, because that would get in the way of his being a hero to the poor downtrodden activists fighting for freedom in Arab countries and elsewhere. Honestly, I cannot understand why NPR, normally a bastion of decent journalism, allows it.
It’s why so many people have such a hard time trusting what’s found on the Interwebs. How could you blame em? If somebody who’s supposed to be the be-all-and-end-all of the Arab spring is tossing everything out there — even if he’s adding a cute little “is this true?” on the end — it’s just gonna confuse the matter. Especially when he adds his own unsupported speculation. Then he’s no better than any other “citizen journalist” out there with a viewpoint.
Ah, but what do I know. I haven’t even been a journalist for a quarter century (next year I will reach that milestone). And my current job is to separate the wheat from the chaff that pretenders like Andy Carvin throw out there. My colleagues and I painstakingly go through all those tweets, all those videos, all those Facebook posts to figure out what’s real and what isn’t, what is the truth and what might be even a well-intentioned lie.
Carvin finally got to go to Egypt, to Cairo. He went down to Tahrir, but when the tear gas came out, he retreated to the safety of his hotel room to check his Twitter stream, where, he said, he understood what was going on much better.
I’ve never been to Cairo, to Benghazi, to Aleppo, to Gaza. I’m pretty sure, though, if I ever were, I wouldn’t be there to meet my Twitter friends. I’d be there to report, because that’s what I do. And if that meant walking into a cloud of tear gas, then give me a wet rag and get out of my way.
Looking at videos from Syria is painful, but it’s necessary. It’s our job to verify them, to know that they were shot where the uploader says they were shot and that they show what the uploader says they show. That means seeing bodies, destroyed homes, lost children, everything, in detail, gory detail. We don’t watch them once and pass them on. We watch them trying to glean everything we can out of them so that we can say with authority if it’s real. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it is hard on every level imaginable.
I’m not a witness to the horrors in Syria, though. I’m a curator, a documentarian. A fact-checker. I’m not superhero, or even a not-so-superhero. I’m just doing a journalist doing a job with a slew of pretty nifty technological tools that help me do that job with more confidence than before. I don’t have to be there, but there’s a lot I miss by being here.
But it’s a good job and I’m proud of it, proud of my colleagues, one of whom once used Google maps to plot where in a particular Syrian city a video of an explosion might have been shot based on the speed of sound and line of site. It was a thing to behold. That’s verification.
It’s easy to fake things on the internet. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube — they can all be gamed. It takes hard, precise work to make sense of it all, to get at the real story. Any less is a disservice to readers, viewers, other journalists and especially the story.