Just after 12 pm on Tuesday, a story started picking up some serious online momentum.
Here’s how the New York Post’s story began:
Even bears can’t stand Justin Bieber’s music.
A fisherman in Russia was being attacked by a brown bear and escaped death when his Justin Bieber ringtone went off and sent the beast fleeing into the forest.
Animals? Check. A strange and amazing turn of events? Check. Justin Bieber angle when he’s already in the news for a run-in with Orlando Bloom? Check.
Too good to check? Check.
But next thing you know, NPR’s “Morning Edition” covers it, and it ends up in a Seth Meyers monologue:
Here’s the issue: the first story of the bear attack was published in Russian language publication Pravda back on July 31 — and it says nothing about Justin Bieber.
At some point in making the leap to English, someone added a detail to the story that transformed it into a viral hit. According to Google Translate, the original Russian version said the bear was scared away when Igor Vorozhbitsyn’s phone began speaking out the current time. So, yes, the phone apparently scared off the bear mid-mauling. But no Bieber.
Did Vorozhbitsyn change his story in a subsequent interview and realize it was Bieber all along?
Or did someone insert a seemingly false Justin Bieber angle into the story?
Point of Bieberfication
The bear-and-Bieber stories all carried the same pictures of Vorozhbitsyn. They had the same quotes of him explaining that his granddaughter had put the ringtone on his phone.
They quote the same “wildlife expert”: “Sometimes a sharp shock can stop an angry bear in its tracks and that ringtone would be a very unexpected sound for a bear.”
Hey, thanks for that too-perfect quote to round out the story, anonymous wildlife expert with no credentials!
The symmetry in the stories is because they all used the information contained in a single English language report from a site called the Austrian Times. It’s led by a Brit named Michael Leidig, who also owns the Central European News agency. (His name is listed in the domain owership records for the sites, as well as for CEN’s affiliate agency, EuroPics.)
After the Austrian Times/CEN published the story, it spread to MailOnline.
Once MailOnline had it, the story was off and running. Bieber and the bear was the real deal, and everyone wanted to plant a flag on it. As of this writing, MailOnline’s story has racked up over 13,000 shares.
The images are the first clue as to where the story really came from. MailOnline cited CEN as the copyright holder of the image it used. But the Austrian Times story credits Pravda with the image on its story. A search on the Pravda website turned up the original article with its images and Bieber-less reporting.
So how did the Austrian Times learn of the Bieber angle that Pravda apparently missed?
No answer from Austrian Times/CEN/EuroPics
I spoke with a woman who said Rogers was not in the office. When I asked about the story, she said she would follow up with their office in Russia to get the details and would call me back. I asked if their office there typically rewrites things from wires and local press.
“A lot of stories are found on the wire or in local media but also from local interviews on the ground, or we speak to the reporters who wrote them; we speak to police to get things confirmed,” she said.
I called her again later that day to ask if she had news from the Russian office, and she said they are often hard to get ahold of. She never got back to me.
I also called and emailed Leidig, owner of both the Austrian Times, CEN and EuroPics. A man who answered the phone at the CEN office said Leidig is on vacation in Romania.
Leidig, who has lived in Austria for some time, says nothing about himself on the CEN or Times websites, but he has an extensive Wikipedia page. In the section about CEN, it lists MailOnline as one of its clients, though that and much of the page itself offers no citation for the claim. (In 2013, Leidig self-published a book about Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff.)
Along with detailing Leidig’s journalistic achievements, the Wikipedia page includes this passage:
Leidig is also a campaigner for greater support for journalism which he describes as the “coalface of democracy.” He has campaigned in favour of more responsibility from search engines like Google to give credit to original source material and also for payment for originators of news, arguing that if the journalists all go out of business nobody will provide the content worth having.
The sole link in that passage goes to… an article on the Austrian Times. Still, one would hope Pravda is therefore earning some revenue from the story and images that CEN and the Austrian Times plucked from its site. (I contacted Pravda to ask about the images and the story, but have not yet heard back.)
For their part, the Austrian Times, CEN and EuroPics have stopped talking to me. After receiving no information from their Russian bureau, I sent a detailed email Thursday with questions about the Bieber version of the Pravda story and its use — and possible resale — of Pravda images. No has replied or returned my calls.
Meanwhile, the irresistibly Bieberfied version of the story continues to spread. Entertainment websites and news organizations give it the quick rewrite treatment and link to each other’s versions, completely obscuring the dubious origins of the story.
Too good to check, and now, I suspect, too entrenched to ever be really corrected.