Someone on the Internet Is Wrong

March 5, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the end of “Wag the Dog,” we hear a voice-over of a TV news item:
 Famed film producer Stanley R. Moss died suddenly of a massive heart attack while sunbathing poolside.  Mr. Moss was 57 or 62-years-old, depending on the bio.
The point of this line is also the point of the film:  big players in Hollywood, Washington, and possibly elsewhere pass off untruths as facts –  facts that fit their personal or political needs.

But how can we know when a Stanley Moss was really born?  I was reminded of this problem on Friday, March 1.  It was the centennial of Ralph Ellison’s birth.  Or was it?  This is what I got when I Googled “Ralph Ellison born.”

(Click in the image for a larger view.)

Some say 1913, others 1914.  They can’t both be right.  Are we rushing Ellison’s centennial? Is the true birth date of this man* invisible?

The Internet shrinks the time and space for the spread of error.  In older media, error doesn’t go viral, but it still can spread.  Lisa Yui, an accomplished pianist and music scholar who teaches at Montclair, told me of trying to track down the precise dates of birth and death of a little-known composer.  She consulted a well-known musicologist  – an older man still throughly immersed in the print era.  She visited him in his book-heavy house and asked how to get reliable information.  His answer: government records and tombstones.  If you can’t trust books, how can you trust Websites?


* My favorite Ralph Ellison anecdote was included in this post.

1 comment:

Bob S. said...

Not sure government records would help in this case. Even in 1913 many births, deaths and marriages were simply recorded in the family bible or not recorded at all.