Remember the kerfuffle about the naked foreign tourists who climbed Malaysia’s Mt. Kinabalu, stripped, urinated and caused an earthquake that killed 18 people?
That story didn’t happen as it was reported. Although several people were charged and deported after being jailed briefly for causing public nuisance, allegedly for angering the spirits of the mountain and causing a 6.0 earthquake on May 5, none of them was Emil Kaminski, the alleged ringleader.
Kaminski now admits he wasn’t even in Malaysia, much less stripped down to his birthday suit on the mountain. And there is a depressing lesson involved for American journalism: don’t pretend you’re there when you are not. It is a case study on how the formerly respectable press has been consumed by the online social media world of uncorroborated rumor, gossip and false clickbait news stories.
A decidedly obnoxious Canadian tourist, Kaminski has confessed he was just trolling the respectable international media–and they fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. Kaminiski created fake pictures and posted messages on Facebook and Twitter and drew both the ire of Malaysian authorities and the attention of the world’s media.
The Washington Post should be particularly embarrassed. The Post published at least six stories on the “Naked Mountain Climbers”– four from the Associated Press, one from the Religion News Service and one written by the Post itself.
The Washington Post story was authored by Michael E. Miller, whose title is the Post “Foreign Affairs correspondent.” “He writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet him at MikeMillerDC,” reads his description on the Post news article.
The Post–in this new world of online journalism–does not have a single reporter in Southeast Asia. In fact, the Post doesn’t even have a single reporter in the US outside Washington. It has closed down every news bureau in America. There remains not a single one. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago–all closed.
It didn’t use to be this way with the Washington Post, once one of finest, most credible newspapers in the world. The Post story was written entirely from information acquired by their intrepid “Foreign Affairs correspondent” from behind his computer in Washington, D.C. And it was fundamentally false.
In the rush to publish to get the breathless pleasures of web hits, the Post didn’t check whether the story was true. In a story headlined “Tourists strip, a sacred mountain shakes and Malaysia gets very angry,” the Post featured Emil Kaminski, a travel blogger whose shtick is stripping buck naked at various international wilderness sites. The Post wrote about how Kaminski was hiding from Malaysian authorities after the earthquake debacle.
“Kaminski appears to have made no effort to slip under the radar,” Miller wrote. “Quite the opposite. On Monday, he posted a photo of the tourists disrobing atop the mountain, alongside the caption: ‘Mount Kinabalu. Time of my life.’ He also tagged himself and two friends in the photo.”
Kaminski “did not respond to repeated requests for comment,” the Post said in a long article describing the Canadian’s antics on the Malaysian mountain. The problem is that Kaminski was not even in Malaysia. He was being a common internet jerk, making things up.
And Kaminski now says he made the pictures up after the fact and simply posted them on Facebook to rile Malaysian authorities “and troll the media.” And the Washington Post “Foreign Affairs” correspondent was perusing his computer from behind his windowless desk in DC and fell for it.
“Here is the background,” Kaminski wrote on May 14 on his You Tube account. “On June 1, a bunch of hikers went up Mt Kinabalu and, not knowing the mountain is sacred they stripped down and pissed everyone off. On June 5th, an earthquake took place and 18 people got killed on Mt Kinabalu. Not a very good day. Shortly afterwards, the chief minister of the state of Sabah and the Minister of Tourism jointly explained that the earthquake happened because of the streaking tourists angering the spirits of the mountain which then punished everyone by shaking.”
“So I got all fired up, as you do on Facebook, and posted this little thing,” he said.
The “little thing” was a post of a news story about the earthquake accompanied by three photographs of his naked butt on a mountain. But none of the pictures, it turns out, are from Malaysia. “And most importantly, I wasn’t even in Malaysia at the time. I did not claim to be in Malaysia at the time. My last visit to Malaysia was on May 2nd, transiting through Kuala Lumpur airport having just finished filming the earthquake in Nepal. “
“Things got less funny when commentators began posting Kaminski’s personal contact information,” the Post wrote “Then they get really serious when someone posted the name of his hotel in Malaysia and his flight information.”
But the Post had not “bothered to look at my photos and say, Hey! Wait a minute. That doesn’t actually look like Mt Kinabalu,” wrote Kaminski.
“I decided to do some trolling. I went on Google Images and found the images of the real summit streakers and tagged a couple of friends in it and sat back. 12 hours later, nearly half a million people had seen that post” and he received numerous hate responses. “My face has been plastered all over the various news outlets in Canada and the States.”
That is when the Washington Post took notice.
“Rather than have them find me for real, I thought I would send out a few red herrings and have them look for me in the wrong place. So using an image from Wikipedia, I posted a photo from Tawau and ‘accidentally’ spilled the beans to a friend on Facebook saying that I am in Tawau, lying low in Tawau, in southern Borneo.”
The Washington Post ran with the story despite the fact that Kasinski was not in Tawau, or even Malaysia, Miller continued. “Kaminski’s flight from Malaysia “doesn’t leave until Wednesday” and he “took to Twitter to mock (Malaysian tourist Minister) Manjun once more on Tuesday, claiming that the tourism minister was “too ignorant of science” to file an official police report against the traveler,” wrote the Washington Post.
“The story started spilling into North America and I found it astonishing that not even the smallest amount of journalistic inquiry was conducted and the Washington Post just regurgitated Facebook hearsay,” Kasinski said. “But the Post wasn’t the only one. The Daily Mail, the Telegraph, News Straits Times, and the Malay Mail pretty much made a specialty of gathering information from a random source, but particularly interesting was that I had been arrested. Did anyone even bother to talk to the police, did the police know who they arrested, did they know I was not in Malaysia?”
The Post does not even have a paid stringer in Southeast Asia to be on hand when a story of import breaks. Instead, they have given titles of “Foreign Affairs correspondent” to someone sitting in a windowless room behind a computer in Washington, D.C. whose job is to peruse YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and regurgitate social media information and publish the story–ASAP–regardless whether it is true.
It didn’t use to be this way. It is a sad day for the Washington Post. Their online stories have been reduced to nothing more than click bait competition for TMZ and Gawker. Facts are not checked. Accuracy is not corroborated. Many stories do not even get filtered through editors in the rush to get web hits.
The result is that you cannot believe anything you read in the Washington Post now.
It didn’t use to be this way. And it won’t be in the future. Sooner or later, the Post business model will realize that readers want to know they can believe in the stories one publishes. That is not true today, sadly. Readers know they can’t believe what they read that gets published by the Post today.
Kaminski is a decidely uninteresting character, common among people who lurk on social media trolling for pages-hits and clicks on Twitter and Facebook.
“I Tweeted that my Wifi was excellent in my prison cell. My tweet was immediately picked up by the (London) Telegraph confirming that I was arrested,” said Kaminsky. “I wanted to troll the trolls but instead ended up trolling the media, which instead actually seemed to be trolling me pretty hard. Welcome to Facebook, welcome to YouTube, Welcome to Twitter, welcome to dissenting opinions, and welcome to the 21st century,” said Kaminisky, reveling in his snark.
Welcome to the 21st century, Washingtonpost.com. Hopefully your business team will realize that quality news has a market and that readers want news that has gone through the internal sausage making process of a respectable news organization that one can believe what one reads.
In 2009, the Post integrated its online website with its print edition. “The motivation behind the integration is to become a more nimble company focused on disseminating news and information on multiple platforms. But we do anticipate that we will also be able to become more efficient,” wrote Publisher Katharine Weymouth.
Weymouth, the Post’s last publisher before it was sold off to Amazon in 2013, insisted in 2010 that the Post online reporting met the “exact same standards that we require from our print newspaper.”
That was not honest then and it is not true now. In March 2013, the Post fired its independent ombudsman and eliminated the position.
“Dear readers,” wrote Katharine Weymouth at the time. “The world has changed, and we at The Post must change with it. We have been privileged to have had the service of many talented ombudsmen (and women) who have addressed readers’ concerns, answered their questions and held The Post to the highest standards of journalism. Those duties are as critical today as ever. Yet it is time that the way these duties are performed evolves…..Beginning Monday, you may send questions or complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org….”
It didn’t use to be this way.
Nate Thayer is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist. This appeared on his blog, Nate Thayer-Journalist.