I almost wasn’t going to write about the supposed cyber attack at the New York Times last week as reported by Fox Business because I just haven’t had the time but after the NASDAQ went down today and everyone and their brother started to speculate as to the nature of the ‘technical glitch’ I figured I should throw something together.
In my talk ‘Hackers and Media Hype or Big Hacks That Never Really Happened’ I mention that I see this sort of thing every day. That it is rampant throughout the tech press and often leaches over into traditional media outlets as well. I’ve detailed this sort of thing before as in this blog post ‘Anatomy of Hype’ however this time reporters Matt Egan and Jennifer Booton published their unconfirmed ‘cyber attack’ on the FOX Business website and while FOX takes a lot of shit for their style of nearly tabloid journalism they have a much greater reach than tech news outlets like ZDNet.
So lets see if we can piece together what happened here. At approximately 11:30 on August 14th 2013 the New York Times website went down. And by down I mean down hard, nytimes.com and nytco.com were both throwing up 503 site unavailable errors. Hey, shit happens, sites go down, they get fixed they come back up. As anyone who has ever worked on-call for an IT department will tell you despite backups, failovers and triple redundancies this happens ALL THE TIME.
By 11:53am, about half hour into the outage the official verified New York Times twitter account cited technical difficulties as the reason for the outage.
At 11:55am Matt Egan Matt Egan (@MattEgan5) and Jennifer Booton (@jbooton) pushed the first version (screenshot) of their story “Source: New York Times Website Hit by Cyber Attack”. Their entire basis for the story was ‘a source close to the matter’. A source they fail to identify. A source as it turns out wasn’t all that close to the matter after all.
By 12:31am, internal New York Times employees start referencing an internal email that cites a malfunctioning system patch as the cause for the outage. While Microsoft’s Patch Tuesday was the day before, which may or may not have been the cause of the outage, it made much more sense than a cyber attack.
At 12:47pm, a little over an hour into the outage the New York Times Official twitter account finally offers up an explanation citing a ‘server issue’.
Well, they did update their story (screenshot), put they updated it with quotes that make it sound like there was still some sort of cyber attack, quotes that are obviously of a hypothetical nature. Quotes that appear to be taken completely out of context but which support the original erroneous hypothesis of a cyber attack.
One of the people who was quoted in the article said afterwards that the reporters came to him saying that they had already confirmed the cyber attack which was the only reason he agreed to speak with them. I have to ask, where was the confirmation? I have never been to journalism school but I suspect that Matt Egan and Jennifer Booton must have slept through the class on confirmation. I always thought you needed two independent sources to confirm a story. A lone ‘source close to the matter’ does not count as confirmation. Where were the FOX Business editors that reviewed this tripe before it was posted to the FOX Business website?
As I did with ZDNet I call on FOX Business to either completely rewrite the story on their site to reflect the currently known facts or to remove it altogether. Leaving a story such as this to fester on their website reflects poorly not just on FOX Business Matt Egan and Jennifer Booton but on the InfoSec industry as a whole, not to mention the damage that it is doing to the New York Times.
The excuse that it fast breaking new story does not fly; a news website has a responsibility to the public to publish accurate and timely information. There is no excuse in this modern age not to update stories with new information as it becomes available. FOX Business has updated this story, several times, but the information is entirely skewed to support the original erroneous hypothesis.
So how about FOX, Matt, and Jennifer, can you take the high road and report the facts or do you prefer to wallow in the muck of fear, uncertainty, and doubt?
Update: Dave Lewis at CSO Magazine has also blogged about this story.