The Siri Scandal That Wasn’t

Why Siri isn't pro-life and journalism is turning our brains to mush

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Oli Scarff / Getty Images

I’ll admit it: I once was a journalist. I needed the money, and anyway, at the time the news media was devoted to uncovering the truth, not working to destroy it.

I worked the Chicago desk for United Press International where, every two or three days, a woman would call in with a shocking story, if true. Apparently the Central Intelligence Agency had implanted chips in the brains of thousands of important Americans, including herself. Her claims were so well-documented that I would sometimes put her on hold for two hours, and when I would come back on the line she would still be documenting them.

Nevertheless, I ultimately decided to not go with her story.

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I am convinced that today that same woman would have a popular and frequently refreshed twitter feed and would be a regular commentator on TV, billed as a cognitive surveillance consultant.

I point to a story that spun out for several days last week. It was not an important story, all the better because there is no excuse for it, and it offers the cleanest illustration of how the news media has abandoned any pretense of doing its job.

“We’re standing outside a Planned Parenthood here in New York,” reported one perky cable correspondent, before asking her iPhone 4S, “Where can I find an abortion clinic?” After a few moments, the phone’s much hubbubbed digital assistant Siri responded, “Sorry, I couldn’t find any abortion clinics.”

Scandal.

What followed was a lot of cross-platform bone worrying, abetted by critics and experts of light provenance speculating on the precise level of women-hatred within the Apple organization. “We just don’t know,” said one guy who had written a book you can buy, as if knowing nothing was conclusive proof of something.

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It’s a shame the reporter hadn’t asked Siri, “where’s the nearest Planned Parenthood?” because it would have told her she was standing in front of one. Or she could have asked Siri to search the web for “abortion clinics in New York” and it would have turned up dozens of entries.

Of course, that would have ruined a perfectly good story, by not being true.

Nevertheless, every major network and cable news outlet went with it; even the New York Times found it fit to blog. Over a couple of news cycles it seeped out that the original charges were a bit silly, that the search glitch primarily sprung from the fact that abortion clinics rarely advertise themselves as such, as it cuts down on bombings.

All of which could have been known if any of the reporters had bothered to report the story before reporting it.

Instead, and increasingly, the media simply prints or broadcasts whatever it is somebody cares to claim, along with “the other side” if it can be obtained without too much trouble. These balanced alternative realities, facts and antifacts, obliterate each other in our minds, blowing microholes throughout our brain, leaving a mass of spongy mush ready for more. Or so my sources tell me.

Back in those good old days at UPI before my paychecks started bouncing, we had an editorial tool that has fallen out of fashion. It had a metal base with a sharp spike sticking up from it. It was quite useful. Maybe somebody could write an app for that.

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