You would think Justin Zatkoff, the Oakland University student who nearly died for the Republican cause last week, would deserve a round of applause for taking one in the eye for all the conservatives being discriminated against out there. He really would deserve applause – had he nearly died, had he been the victim of a politically motivated hate crime, had there been a trend of violence against Republicans. The real story of Zatkoff, the executive director of the Michigan Federation of College Republicans with a nasty black eye, is far less glamorous than what originally appeared on the Internet. He got drunk, his friend punched him in the eye, and his buddies told others it was done by “liberal thugs.”
The story is amusing, if only due to schadenfreude. But the hate crime that wasn’t demonstrates more than one kid’s foolishness: It also reveals the how blogs have developed the ability to instantly spread news and gossip far faster, in some cases, than the truth can travel.
Blogs have turned any commuter with a camera into a reporter, any insomniac into a pundit. Every word or idea is instantly made public, uncensored, unedited – and unverified. This democratization of media has been effective in bringing issues and scandals to the forefront that otherwise might not fit on the limited pages of a newspaper or condensed into the evening news. Blogs have given the individual the ability to rant about his leaders or his dog’s weird habits to a potentially limitless audience.
But blogs, as they are now, cannot wholly replace traditional media. As Zatkoff’s story illustrates, blogs may shine in their ability to transmit information rapidly, but they lag in accountability and often in accuracy.
Zatkoff’s misfortune first appeared on the college Republican blog Truth Caucus, when it posted a report from a reader that there was “quite a bit of speculation that he was targeted by leftist groups.” It was soon picked up by the popular Washington blog Wonkette, which reported that “a source close to Justin” said he was attacked by By Any Means Necessary or a “homosexual rights group.” And so on. The Ann Arbor News and The Michigan Daily later published the police report, but the rumor that Zatkoff was brutally beaten at a party last month by “liberal thugs” had already done its damage.
In part, the willingness of readers to accept Zatkoff’s claim that he was victim of a political hate crime drew on a widely held view that Republicans are a targeted minority, particularly in liberal cities like Ann Arbor. Last year’s Conservative Coming Out Day was a testament to this sentiment of victimization on campus. Although Zatkoff’s shiner had nothing to do with his political beliefs, people believed his story because it fit well into the pre-established mold that liberals were out to get him. Following its appearance on Truth Caucus, the state chair of the Michigan College Republicans sent out a statement warning fellow Republicans to “travel in groups when possible, especially until the elections are over.”
There were no “militant leftist groups” out to set Zatkoff straight that night. Nor did the pro-affirmative action group BAMN have any intention of acting literally on its name. As blogs mature, it seems likely that cases like Zatkoff’s will become less frequent. For now, Zatkoff’s 15 minutes of fame has just proved to be another unsuccessful attempt of playing poor, abused rightist.