Kill Me Before I Sing Again

A recent story in The New York Times about karaoke killings illustrates the lax standards of the media, writes Eric Alterman.

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A man sings karaoke in a Filipino bar. <i>The New York Times</i> recently reported that people in the Philippines are killing each other over karaoke versions of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," but the article's sources are questionable and very little information is verified, drawing attention to the ability of journalists to make vague claims. (Flickr/<a href=hankoss)" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
A man sings karaoke in a Filipino bar. The New York Times recently reported that people in the Philippines are killing each other over karaoke versions of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," but the article's sources are questionable and very little information is verified, drawing attention to the ability of journalists to make vague claims. (Flickr/hankoss)

For days after it was published, the story “Sinatra Song Often Strikes Deadly Chord” in Sunday’s The New York Times sat at or near the top of the paper of record’s most emailed stories. This is unusual because the story was a) buried inside the paper; b) does not bear on any significant political issue; c) does not have any gossip value; d) involves no celebrity; and e) will not help you lose your cellulite or improve your sex life. But what is really interesting about the story is that if you read it carefully, it’s possible to conclude that there is no story there at all.

Sure, it’s got a cute premise. People in the Philippines are killing each other over karaoke versions of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” The headline cheats because “My Way” is really by Paul Anka and he recorded it, too, but let’s give them the Sinatra reference since it’s a pretty fair bet that most people associate it with Ol Blue Eyes and probably don’t know or care who wrote it.

But look at the story itself. First off, about these killings. Exactly how many have actually taken place? Is it one? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? Your guess, it would appear, is just about as good as that of the reporter, Norimitsu Onishi, and his editors at America’s most prestigious and respected newspaper. It might even be zero.

Take a close look at the details. First we learn that “the authorities” —there is no definition of who constituted an “authority” in this—do not know exactly how many people have been killed warbling “My Way” in karaoke bars over the years in the Philippines or how many fatal fights it has fueled. In fact, the story does not provide any evidence at all. Next we learn that the story’s source for the extent of alleged murders—indeed its only source—is something called “the news media,” which is said to have recorded “at least half a dozen such victims in the past decade.”

Oh, really. Just what is “the news media?” In our country, the news media can be used to refer to Glenn Beck, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, The New York Post, News of the World, Oprah, Jayson Blair, Joe Schmo blogger, or just about anyone with a modem or a mimeograph machine. You can assert anything if you source it to "news media sources," for instance that President Barack Obama is an illegitimate Kenyan communist-fascist aspiring murderer of old people and hater of his own mother. I imagine that in the Philippines, standards are every bit as lax for admittance into what this reporter calls “the news media,” if not laxer.

And just what does “at least half a dozen victims in the past decade” mean? If it is half a dozen over 10 years, which I doubt, that does not exactly sound like an epidemic to me, particularly since we have no comparison to how many alleged killings take place in karaoke bars when other awful songs are being sung. How many people are killed singing Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City?” How many during Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” or Lobo’s “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo?”

Next we learn that “karaoke-related killings are not limited to the Philippines.” In the past two years alone, a Malaysian man was fatally stabbed for hogging the microphone at a bar and a Thai man killed eight of his neighbors in a rage after they sang John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Again, the sourcing of these stories is spotty to the point of complete and total nonexistence. I wonder if it’s possible that, even in the event that these murders did in fact take place, other issues might have inspired them. For instance, did the karaoke singer happen to have sex with the spouse of the alleged killer? My guess is nobody at the Times has any idea.

Look at the rest of this story: “Indeed, most of the ‘My Way’ killings have reportedly occurred after the singer sang out of tune, causing other patrons to laugh or jeer.” Note the use of the word “reportedly” as a synonym for “I have no idea if what I am saying has any basis whatever in reality.” Then the Times gets a lot of experts to speculate on something that, for all they know, may not even be happening.

  • Butch Albarracin, the owner of Center for Pop, a Manila-based singing school that has propelled the careers of many famous singers, was partial to what he called the “existential explanation.” “‘I did it my way’ — it’s so arrogant,” Mr. Albarracin said. “The lyrics evoke feelings of pride and arrogance in the singer, as if you’re somebody when you’re really nobody. It covers up your failures. That’s why it leads to fights.” 
  • “The Philippines is a very violent society, so karaoke only triggers what already exists here when certain social rules are broken,” said Roland B. Tolentino, a pop culture expert at the University of the Philippines. But even he hedged, noting that the song’s “triumphalist” nature might contribute to the violence. Albarracin and Tolentino played along, however, because how often do owners of the Center for Pop or pop culture experts at the University of the Philippines get to be quoted in The New York Times?

Overall, this nearly 1,200 word story does not manage to come up with a single individual, witness, or police source who can support its thesis. My guess is that the Times will get away with it because nobody has any material interest in challenging it. (Jayson Blair got away with his lies for months and months until he started quoting people who learned how to make their complaints heard.)

I do have a larger point, however, and it’s this: This is how journalism works. You can make up as much stuff as you want as long as nobody in power has a reason to object. You can use the words “reportedly” or “it seems” or “some argue” to float any kind of cockamamie theory you like. If you wonder why historians routinely rewrite the history of our politics to the point where it turns out our leaders and their opponents were doing exactly the opposite of what the press reported them to be doing at the time, you can credit, at least in part, the media’s lax standards in inviting them to deceive the rest of us.

Now think about everything you think you know about President Obama, his agenda, and the role of congressional Republicans in seeking bipartisan solutions for the nation’s pressing problems. Think about where you learned it. If it was the Times or The Washington Post or the noneditorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, well, you might encounter these kinds of problems. If it was the Drudge Report or Fox or whatever, well, your problems discerning what’s true and what would just be fun if it were true, are, I’m afraid, likely to be far worse.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals . His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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