Ulterior Motives (a look at shoddy journalism)

[This was originally published on Hacker News Network (HNN) and mirrored on attrition.org.]

Introduction

Today, journalism has moved from shoddy to sleazy and demands correction and explanation. We are all aware of the deficiency in reporting on security and hacking and for those who have read stories in the past few months, you probably realize there is no sign of it getting any better. Unfortunately, it is not holding steady on a below average level either. It is spiraling downward very rapidly. The fact is, media outlets report news to make money. While a small few may still believe in journalistic integrity, most of the news reporters write as a day job. It is a quick lesson for each newcomer to the reporting field to find that writing about dull topics with little excitement doesn’t put food on the table. Write about events overflowing with real life heroes, evil criminals intent upon hurting the average citizen, or extraordinary events that transcend the daily grind.

The New Problem

Today is finding examples of shoddy journalism that begs new examination and consideration of the growing problem. The last few weeks have produced a very clear and specific example of this. Instead of resorting to the previously mentioned lame excuses, no valid explanation of these articles can be found. Not only are these errors inherently inaccurate, they are explicitly opposite of prior factual reporting. Rather than two media outlets coming to different conclusions based on independent research, we find one outlet writing their own piece directly based on another outlets published article. More astonishing is the lack of response when directly confronted on it. It doesn’t need to be said for most people, but this kind of journalism is unethical and overwhelmingly points to an ulterior motive in writing these articles. This is not to suggest there is a master plan or wealthy round table that controls these articles. Rather, it seems that several media outlets have come to the same conclusion that the truth is not profitable. When the truth doesn’t sell copies, what
is left to resort to? Deliberate alteration of facts or events to produce a more desirable product.

Action

On 3/19/99, Adam Penenberg wrote an article on a cracker known as ‘MagicFX’ and his intrusion of E-Bay Online (ebay.com). The article is a result of communication between Penenberg and the system cracker. Quotes in the article are directly from the cracker and the details were verified. In the article(link to below), Penenberg states the following:

  • “…to prove his point, took down eBay’s home page for two minutes…”
  • “This means he could change prices or place fake ads, divert traffic to other sites or even take down the entire network.”

Note in quote #1, Penenberg explicitly states what the cracker did on the site to prove the events transpired. In quote #2, he describes what the cracker could do with the access he has.

On 3/22/99 ZDNet put a quick blurb in their “it news” section. In the blurb, there is no mention of the Forbes article, yet that is the only source the information could have been gleaned from. In the blurb ZDNet goes on to say “Magic has reportedly taken down the site, altered auction prices, displayed fake items, and sent traffic to other sites.” In this sentence the use of the word ‘reportedly’ points to the Forbes article as it was the only report out at the time. It goes on to leave off the word ‘could’, stating that the cracker did commit malicious
activity on Ebay’s system. This is a clear case of the author blatantly ignoring the facts presented in the only article on the subject.

On the same day, CNN posted an article from Newsbytes written by Bob Woods. While CNN did not author this piece, they were responsible for the wide distribution of the article as well as some responsibility in reprinting of inaccurate material. In the article Woods writes “Forbes’ Digital Tool Web site reported.. The cracker reportedly removed the site from the Internet, changed auction prices, displayed fake advertising, and re-directed traffic to other Web sites.” Unlike ZDNet, Woods directly attributes his information to Penenberg’s article. Unfortunately, Woods seems incapable of reading (doubtful), or deliberately altered the facts for unknown reasons. Like the ZDNet article, Woods claims the cracker did re-direct traffic, change prices, and more. Worse, Woods claims the cracker “removed the site from the Internet”. I don’t understand how a cracker could feasibly do this, especially in the same sentence where he supposedly altered prices and redirected traffic.

These glaring errors are nothing short of . That not one, but two different media outlets could butcher such a simple article. Looking at the size of the ZDNet article, one could imagine how dry the piece might have been if they only reported “Ebay was hacked”. The Newsbyte/CNN piece goes into a little more detail and even quotes the referring article. This makes it all the more inexcusable for such errors to happen.

Reaction

What can you do? First off, write to the offending media outlet. In most cases, they list an email contact address for questions or gripes. Since it takes only a minute to fire off a piece of email, do it. Even if it
is a single line, just get it on the record that you don’t approve of their shoddy journalism. The more complaints they receive, the more they must consider what they print as it begins to represent a larger
representation of their readership.

It is such a small effort to play a role in correcting a serious problem. Think of how many thousands of people read these news outlets and don’t realize they are reading garbage.


Appendix 1 – Forbes Article

3/19/99 Going once, going twice … HACKED!
By Adam L. Penenberg

EBay (nasdaq: EBAY), the hot one-to-one auction site, was hacked on Saturday, March 13 by a 22-year-old college student who goes by the handle MagicFX. But the story doesn’t end there. The hacker maintains
access to the site and can return at will. He has “root” access to eBay’s computers, the same kind the legitimate administrators enjoy. This means he could change prices or place fake ads, divert traffic to other sites or even take down the entire network.

(snip…)

Appendix 2 – ZDNet Article

3/22/99 it news blurb

Online auction site Ebay finds itself at the mercy of a 22-year-old hacker who calls himself Magic-FX. Magic has reportedly taken down the site, altered auction prices, displayed fake items, and sent traffic to other sites.

Appendix 3 – CNN Article

3/22/99 “Hacker Cracks Ebay’s Web Site”

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA, U.S.A. (NB) — By Bob Woods, Newsbytes. A hacker reportedly infiltrated the Web site of Internet person-to-person auctioneer eBay Inc. [NASDAQ:EBAY], taking down the entire site and gaining access to other content in the process, a press report said.

Forbes’ Digital Tool Web site reported the hacker, more accurately known as a “cracker,” identified himself as a 22-year-old college student going by the name “MagicFX.” The cracker reportedly removed the site from the Internet, changed auction prices, displayed fake advertising, and re-directed traffic to other Web sites.

(snip…)

Dark Rain

[This was originally published on attrition.org.]

The alley stretched out forever in both directions. Dirty old alley lamps created an eerie lighting effect in the pouring rain. Derek had been walking for nearly an hour before he finally stopped. He pushed his lips together and tilted his head back, bathing his face in the downfall. Water rolled off his cheeks and dripped onto the black silk shirt he had bought earlier in the day. In the distance, barely audible over the rain, church bells tolled the midnight hour. Still looking up, he closed his eyes and listened.

Yet another in a series of failed relationships to add to the roster. Worse, the second one that ended on his birthday. A quarter of a century old, life was still plodding along with no noticeable perks. Only pitfalls, setbacks, and mindfucks from mostly disinterested parties pretending otherwise. The rain continued to fall down on his face with no sign of letting up.

Derek opened his eyes as he dipped his head. His eyes came to rest on her. Time stood still for him as he stared deep into her eyes. Had he cared, he could have counted the rain drops racing down between them. She looked back at him with an intensity he had only dreamed about. Without a word, he collapsed to his knees never breaking eye contact.

The shortness of breath he experienced reminded him of the first time he ever kissed a girl. Touch of the lips, quick intake of air, complete shock. Her mere presence did that and more.

Society wouldn’t necessarily deem her beautiful by their standards, yet he found her more than incredible. Taller than most girls, her height seemed overwhelming until he remembered he was kneeling. Her long black
hair flowed smoothly down, as if hugging her neck and back. Despite her tall form, her physique was absolutely perfect. The blazer she wore seemed to fit more like a low cut t-shirt. Her pale skin exposed in the dim light toyed with his imagination. The falling rain played with the old alley lights causing a dancing shadow on her chest. Below the blazer she wore intricate lace leggings that looked like tranquil water in a black night.

Looking back up he studied her face again. Her features were simple perfection to say the least, and they seemed to beg him to pour his heart out to her. Black makeup gave the highlight of hollowed eyes, but the rain had lent its brush to her art. Black smears ran down from the corner of each eye turning her face into the mask of a tortured angel. A face that seemed wise beyond its years.

The corners of her lips crept up the slightest bit giving the most serene and compassionate smile he had ever known. To see such inherent beauty in darkness. It seemed like days had passed since he first saw her, but it had only been minutes. Stuttering and tripping on his own words, he tried to muster enough coherency to introduce himself but failed. Before he could try again she slowly held out her arm. Derek took the offered hand into his own and felt the smooth skin; a reminder that this was not a dream like his others.

Shifting his position, he stayed on one knee while holding her hand. He bowed his head as he drew her hand closer, wanting nothing more than to feel his lips touch her fair skin. Before he realized it, the back of her hand rested against his lips. The kiss he so dearly wanted to give lingered there. She looked down to see his tears join the rain in bathing her hand.

With understanding she stood there, her hand to his mouth. A smile of content and happiness crept over her face. She brought her right hand up and placed her palm on Derek’s head as if she was granting forgiveness.
Upon touching him, she felt the tension flow out of his body and he relaxed, completely.

He could only sit there on his knee in awe, staring at her. The last thing on his mind was meeting someone new, yet here she was. As if they had power of their own, she drug him off his knees with her eyes. Beckoning him, her eyes seemed to reassure him, calm him, make him understand everything. He wanted to fall over onto the pavement and sleep eternal.

Half sobbing he whispered the first thing that came to mind. “Pure hands..” Hearing that she closed her eyes for a second. he stood up in the slowing rain to look at her face to face. No matter he tried he could not get over her beauty.

I know you don’t I?” Derek’s voice wasn’t much louder than the few drops of rain still coming down.

Yes Derek, you do.” Her voice sang forth.

I do… but I don’t know your name or where we met..” His brows wrinkled as he tried to think back. Racing through the past years he desperately tried to remember anything that would give him a clue.

My name is Faith.. and I’m your salvation.

His eyes lit up as if hit by revelation. It instantly became clear to him when she said the word ‘salvation’. He didn’t recall ever hearing her name before, but it just felt right. The best he could come up with was a strong sense of déjà vu, nothing else. This bothered him deeply because he felt he should know or remember more. He could feel that she was more than a previous casual encounter, that she was more in his life.

You can’t think of where you know me from. Maybe a déjà vu feeling at best?

Guilt washed over Derek’s face upon hearing this from her. “It’s ok Derek. We’ve never met actually. You’ve only dreamt about me before this evening.

But I don’t understand.. how do you know about my dreams?

She smiled at him conveying patience. “I am forbidden to go into that right now. I had a feeling that you were in despair, that life wasn’t going well for you. I felt I needed to find you and tell you..

Tell me what Faith?

That life is worth living. That better things away you in the future…

Things? Like you?

Yes Derek.

For the first time in years, he smiled and actually meant it. Withdrawing her hand, she smiled once more at him before turning to leave. She floated down the alley without another word.

Soon I hope..” he said to himself.

Getting his bearings, he turned around to find his way back to the club and his car. Rain started falling again encouraging him to pick up the pace. Walking around the corner he found himself face to face with a flat black blade. Before he could react he felt a swift punch to his lower back a second before two gloved hands grabbed his arms. Behind the blade in front of his face a cloaked figure shook his head. Recognition hit him
like a ton of bricks as he stared into the face of his only friend.

Derek’s first thought was to say something, ask what was going on, maybe beg for his life. Lyell’s eyes told him that course of action wouldn’t help much. A malicious smile crossed Lyell’s face. Time stood still. Derek felt the cold steel force its way into his stomach. Unexpectedly he felt a second blade enter his lower back.

Struggling to breath, Derek fell forward into Lyell’s arms.

You.. know what. Doesn’t really matter any more. Know why?” Coughing a few times he felt the life slipping away from him.

Well?” Lyell asked impatiently.

Faith…” Derek replied.

=-=

Inspired by: