DeathNET and the Calgary Sun
Date: Fri, 19 May 95 13:50:26 PDT
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: DeathNET and the Calgary Sun
Forwarded-by: bostic@CS.Berkeley.EDU (Keith Bostic)
Forwarded-by: Herb Peyerl <email@example.com>
Forwarded-by: Jonathan Levine <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Forwarded-by: email@example.com (eye WEEKLY)
eye WEEKLY May 11 1995
Toronto's arts newspaper .....free every Thursday
THE LITTLE DEATHNET STORY THAT GREW
Why many people now believe that teens can login and learn how to
Last December, eyeNET presented readers that most irreplaceable of
Internet resources, the "How To Kill Yourself" file. It gives detailed
instructions on creative ways to end one's life. It has circulated the
net for years, uploaded to newsgroups and found languishing in FTP
sites such as Canadian universities, where it is particularly useful
come exam time.
Of it, I wrote: "Some of the ways are serious, drawn from references
like Derek Humphry, publisher of Hemlock -- and some aren't. It's not
hard to guess which is which ... One wonders how long before the Hard
Copy-esque legions who staff mainstream media news outlets discover it:
Suicide Tips On The Information Superhighway! Film at 11!"
Let's fast-forward: Sunday, March 12. Out at Bathurst and College St,
enjoying the spring-like day, I spied a somewhat startling Toronto Sun
front page headline -- startling not only because it was actually more
than one word, but because it read: SUICIDE GURU USING INTERNET TO TELL
TEENS HOW TO DIE.
Looking around and not seeing eye staff snickering and spluttering in
doorways, I deduced it was not one of those phony mock-up papers and
dug out some coin to read it. (The article now proudly adorns wall
space in eyeNET's luxurious HQ.)
This Toronto Sun "exclusive" was bylined Steve Chase of
the Calgary Sun. It opens: "An American suicide advocate has teamed up
with his Canadian counterpart to flog a how-to manual across the
Internet, the Sunday Sun has learned."
Personally, I'm of the opinion that The Toronto Sun might better serve
readers if, in its next net story, the phrase "the Sunday Sun has
learned" is immediately followed by the phrase "how to login."
I immediately realized they were writing not about the How To Kill
Yourself Guide but DeathNET. DeathNET is one of the many
informational/research tools on the World Wide Web. It deals with the
controversial "right to die" issue.
One might have just chalked this up to another sensationalistic
pro-censorship Sun story, except this one would eventually be picked up
around the world. Millions of people were told DeathNET is helping
teens use the Internet to learn how to kill themselves.
THE UNBLINKING NEWS SYSTEM
DeathNET -- http://www.islandnet.com/~deathnet -- is maintained by
Victoria, B.C., resident John Hofsess (firstname.lastname@example.org), executive
director of the Right to Die Society of Canada. It's an info-rich site,
even including the massive transcripts from the Senate Special
Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. (The American content is
maintained by Oregon's Derek Humphry, founder of the National Hemlock
Society and author of Final Exit.) It opened Jan 10.
On March 5, Calgary Sun managing editor Chris Nelson -- who admits he's
net- illiterate -- saw Hofsess on a TV show. Hofsess was discussing
DeathNET. Somehow Nelson thought this meant DeathNET was openly
distributing technical information on performing efficient suicide.
Nelson immediately assigned someone to cover his exclusive and the
Calgary Sun went into a full-court press on The Big Story: "Suicide
tips on the information superhighway."
One Sun editor phoned Anne Mullens -- the former Vancouver Sun science
and medical reporter who won the 1993-94 Atkinson Foundation Award for
Public Policy and wrote an eight-part series on euthanasia. The Calgary
Sun correctly realized it would be hard to find a more expert source --
especially as Mullens is also quite net.savvy.
"The Sun employee (I can't remember her name) asked if I knew anything
about an Internet site in Victoria freely distributing tips to help
teenagers die," Mullens told eyeNET. "I told her, `If you mean
DeathNET, you're way off base. DeathNET does nothing of the kind and
is, in fact, a wonderful resource for writers and researchers.' "
Among the several "expert opinion" quotes in the final story, the
Calgary Sun would somehow forget to include Mullens.
Nelson assigned Sun business reporter Steve Chase
(email@example.com) to actually find the site. Chase did so and
started exploring it on March 7.
(Turns out I'd had contact with Chase before. On Feb. 14, he wrote eye
email applauding our web site and asking for advice on books to learn
about bringing newspapers onto the Internet. I never responded.)
Chase sent Hofsess no less than three pieces of email, pretending to be
a teenager requesting information on how to kill himself, asking that
his family not be told about his request. They were all signed Steve
Chase. Hofsess replied that one cannot get such information on the
Chase had directly attempted to get "a suicide kit" while pretending to
be a teenager. The Calgary Sun would somehow forget to include this.
Upon that failure, Chase dropped the charade and called Hofsess
directly, leaving a message on Hofsess' machine. Hofsess, hearing the
name Steve Chase again, suddenly realized what was happening. He wrote
another piece of email to Chase, demanding the "troubled teen" never
call him again.
As Chase would later admit to me in a phone conversation, he was (and
remains) extremely ticked off Hofsess refused to grant him that
interview. A few days later, the Sun story was released.
STICK IT WHERE THE SUN DON'T SHINE
In the story, the Calgary Sun had no choice but to admit one can't
actually get "suicide kits" on the Internet after all -- much to
Nelson's dismay. So they cobbled together a paragraph as a sort of
legal disclaimer, mentioning this fact.
However, the entire tone of the story is exactly as if DeathNET is
giving away "suicide kits" to teens on the evil Internet. And it's
clear all the aghast "experts" quoted are reacting to Chase's
panic-mongering assertion that DeathNET is openly posting on the net
The "exclusive" came out simultaneously in the Ottawa and Toronto Suns.
With a stunning flourish of editorial wizardry, The Toronto Sun
actually cut the critical ass-covering paragraph from their story.
Chase would later complain about this. The Toronto Sun editors either
deliberately removed it because it took away from the impact of the
story, or were too dense to understand its importance.
All this was pretty bad, but it got worse. The next day, CP rewrote the
Calgary Sun copy and launched it across the wires. Newspapers across
the country carried the CP story -- the Edmonton Journal, Hamilton
Spectator and Vancouver Sun, among others. Then the electronic news
gang soon scooped. A couple of talk shows even called Hofsess, hoping
to book the evil man who was giving suicide tips to troubled teens on
the evil Internet.
The myth then hit the op-ed pages. For instance, on March 17, The Globe
and Mail ran a piece coauthored by Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish
Congress. Farber presented the myth as fact to further his own agenda
of invoking government legislation to censor the net.
Then the Associated Press picked up the story and who knows where it
went from there. Last sighting: England's London Sunday Times.
`GOD WILL PUNISH YOU!'
Hofsess was soon receiving harassing phone calls from "right to life"
right-wing extremists. On the receiving end of this news media
juggernaut, he found the only way to fight back at all was through the
most powerful grassroots "broadcast" medium he could find: netnews. The
Hofsess wrote a two-part criticism ("Inventing Internet Hysteria") of
the Calgary Sun story in can.infohighway . In it, he made public copies
of Chase's "troubled teen" emails. (He also transcribed Chase's
answering machine message. In that message, Chase left his work and
home phone numbers -- which Hofsess included for all the world to read,
a nasty trick, to be sure. Chase got a taste of harassment himself,
discovering censorship is a dirty word on the net.)
Chase directly responded to Hofsess' posts. The post remains an
embarrassment to read. Besides being formatted a la raging newbie, it
flames Hofsess in the lamest of manners. Chase ignored Hofsess'
complaints about the story itself and attacked Hofsess personally. Not
surprisingly, Chase was flamed in return by a few readers across
Chase's intense personal dislike of Hofsess, as evidenced in his reply,
might help explain why the Calgary Sun disregarded Anne Mullens; why it
did not report Chase's complete failure to get "suicide tips on the
Internet"; why it ignored the enormous wealth of research data on
DeathNET while obsessing over the existence of a book called Departing
Drugs in the mail-order section.
But most disheartening is the way the story swept the entire country
without anybody ever calling Hofsess to confirm. Considering the nature
of the Internet, it is the easiest thing in the world to see DeathNET
My conversation with Calgary Sun editor Nelson got very heated when I
suggested his story was bull. We started yelling at each other, I
insistent the story was a gross misrepresentation designed to invoke
censorship, he retorting angrily, "Oh ho! What's your interest in
this?! What's your interest in this?!" --as if only some hidden motive
could explain why anyone would think his story was a piece of shit.
I realize now why Nelson was so defensive: he and Chase had experienced
a strong backlash to their story, not from the newspaper-reading
community but from the net.community. Netters implicitly understood
what the Sun story was really about: hysteria intended to provoke
"It's interesting that all positive feedback I got came through email
or postings to newsgroups," Hofsess told eyeNET. "While anything
negative -- including crank calls telling me that `God will punish
you!' -- came from people unfamiliar with the net -- the gullible
readers of The Sun and other newspapers."
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© 1995 Peter Langston