Washington Post hack to post post-facto fact check

The Washington Post ran an article about the "inventor" of email, which it identified as V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai. But there's a problem! Ayyadurai didn't invent email. After publishing a risible "clarification" and some error-strewn sneering at critics by its ombudsman, amends are finally being made. But a correction remains to be made—because they're still fact-checking a headline they already accept is untrue.


  1. One of the problems with the story was that it was in part backed up by a large vanity Wikipedia entry Shiva Ayyadurai, that he somehow got created.

    Ayyadurai is hardly important enough to deserve an encyclopedia entry and since the WP story it has been marked for deletion which it really deserves. However I bet SA is fighting like a wounded beast to preserve it.

  2. A single call by the reporter to any of a number of easily discoverable historians (or reading, say, 5 Wikipedia entries instead of 1) would have taken care of this. All this hand-wringing by the ombudsman is that the reporter didn’t do her initial work, and he accepted everything she wrote as gospel.

    1. The WP’s ombudsman states that we shouldn’t expect high-quality fact checking out of their paper. Well, who are we to argue with the person on the inside who says their paper is not to be trusted due to the failure to allocate adequate reporter time?

  3. So the Post heard that some guy claimed to have a copyright on the word “email”, and they took that as evidence, rather than asking themselves how someone could copyright a single word? 

    1. The Post doesn’t understand the difference between a copyright and a trademark.  The “clarification” to the original article that they published is technically correct, but seems destined to mislead:

      “A number of readers have accurately pointed out that electronic messaging predates V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s work in 1978. However, Ayyadurai holds the copyright to the computer program called“email,” establishing him as the creator of the “computer program for [an] electronic mail system” with that name, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.”

      Yes, he was the “creator” of “the” particular program that he wrote.  That doesn’t mean that he “created” email.

  4. He’s sticking to the technical, narrowly-focused truth, but using words that to someone not looking for pedantic technicalities would interpret broadly (and falsely) to his benefit. His program was named “EMAIL” and he registered a copyright on the code. 

    SA: Here is my source code for the program I’ve written, “EMAIL.” I’m registering copyright on it.
    News: SA, inventor of “EMAIL,” blah blah today blah blah.
    John Q. Public: Huh, this guy invented email. I thought [AOL|Hotmail|their ISP|Google|Microsoft Outlook] invented email.
    Tech-savvy crowd: WHAAARRRGGHAARRBLL

    Just 3 minutes with the RFCs and this numpty’s overall claims (except copyright to his code, which he owns) are disproven.

    1. Dear Mr. Douchebag,

      Ordinarily I would not undertake this activity, but I feel I must correct a small mistake, and I’m sure you will understand. Proper use of quotation marks places commas inside of the quotation marks, so you would instead be coming for the “critic sneering,” and not “critic sneering”.

      Elix J. Perth Sr.


        1. While I wasn’t actually aware of the difference between British and North American English, and I’ve now learned something, I hope the joke didn’t fly over your head. Grammar Nazi’ing someone with the username “Pedantic Douchebag”?

          Also, I actually prefer the British syntax, but for more pragmatic reasons: You can’t write code with commas. If an item is to be in between quotation marks, it’s a unit of data that shouldn’t be messed with by extra symbols. Makes it more complicated when trying to remember which one to use, depending on if you’re writing code or a paper.

      1. I see no quotation marks anywhere in the comment you replied to; only two words bracketed by inch marks. It is readily apparent how you could have made such a mistake however, as the two symbols are roughly similar if you have poor eyesight, a substandard computer display, or an American education.

        That being said, I am not aware of any widely held convention regarding the placement of commas relative to any particular unit of measurement, and most certainly not when the unit of measurement is being displayed in such a dadaist manner as above.

      2. Oh, dear. You should re-proof your post. See also: Skitt’s Law.

        Two other things: calling me “Mr. Douchebag” assumes much. After all, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. And using a winky emoticon makes me wonder if you actually believe this is Neopets, circa 1999.

  5. Well he might not have been notable before but, since all this brouhaha, he probably now sufficiently is.

  6. I dont know the history of the poster who has been ejected from this thread but I think it is very unsavory to delete comments which are critical but not abusive.

      1. To be fair to the commenter, while the comment was whiny and referred to a separate post, it was marginally on topic.

        Having read the argument in the comment, I found numerous inaccuracies and was in the process of pointing these out when the comment was deleted.

        Whiny, inaccurate and marginally on topic comments dont seem to get deleted when they dont criticize the Boing Boing editorial team. I think deleting them only draws attention to them. Im not a moderator here of course so I cant say for sure but I only see occassional critisism. Ive seen several deletions though and while I never agreed with the poster it always leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

          1. To be clear, I meant that I dont see much criticism of the way the Boing Boing editorial team carry out their work (edit – with the exception of whenever Apple is either critisized or praised). If that kind of criticism is more common than I am aware then I stand corrected.

            When comments were disemvowelled I noticed that they were mostly moderated for being insulting or victim blaming rather than complaining about getting deleted. It is likely that this is still the case but since they are now deleted I am unable to see it.

            In any case, my apologies for the off topic posts, I was just annoyed my prepared reply was wasted.

  7. A few weeks ago the blog of one of the editors of either the NYT or WP (sorry I don’t remember which) was polling whether papers should be held responsible for printing the truth, and now the WP ombudsman says no one ever expected them to. I have to believe these people are all 10 years old and grew up on FOX, because there was, indeed, a time when news media took their jobs seriously.

    This kind of garbage is why I, a person who used to work on a newspaper, and used to have multiple subscriptions to them, now won’t touch one with a ten-foot pole.

    1. The funny thing is that they’re all very experienced oldchool male journalists in ombudsman roles. There’s a recruitment problem going on: they’re terrible in the role, combining assurance, arrogance and ignorance in just the wrong measures.

      1.  It really seems like a sinecure for owners’ or editors’ old pals, who don’t feel like the hard work of digging up facts any more.

  8. Look folks – you have to understand what is really going on here. What this article and the TIME article are is PAID PUBLIC RELATIONS PROPAGANDA from India’s IT lobby, NASSCOM. India, Inc. is desperate to show that Indians are innovating in the US since most people by now know that the vast majority of them have not performed as promised. It is a well-documented fact that in 1998 NASSCOM hired DC PR/lobbying firm Hill & Knowlton to pump “worker shortage” stories into US media. Everytime you see a story like this it is almost certainly NASSCOM public relations. This story wasn’t vetted because WaPo. etc was PAID to publish it. That is how “news” and PR works in the modern world. Read Edward Bernay’s seminal work “Propaganda” to see how it all works. You may now go back to your regularly scheduled brainwashing.

    1. I usually credit Eric Allman.  He wrote sendmail, the program everyone loves to trash because it’s had eight billion security holes (all corrected rapidly).   Lots of people talked the talk, and I certainly don’t wish to put down Jon Postel (He was a key figure in the development of the Internet in general, and I miss him!) but Allman wrote the code that once ran over 90% of the global email traffic, and still runs around half of it today.  He has had more influence over email than any other single human being, I think.  He’s a nice guy too.

  9. I’m not advocating corrections or sloppy work — they inevitably degrade the credibility of any publication…

    I.e. corrections degrade credibility, i.e admitting you’re wrong degrades your credibility.  Brilliant.

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