Follow-up stories can be hard to come by, since people's attention seems to fade as the next hot topic comes along. As Twitter streams new trending topics, stories seem to become old news quicker than ever. A few months ago, I noted how NPR aired a follow-up report on a man who was selling pet insurance for those who thought they might be raptured back in May (remember Harold Camping?). It was a story perfect for the Internet, one that could easily be chuckled at and shared, but it seems like it was too good to be true. Back in December, NPR followed up with Bart Centre, reporting that he had made least $35,000 by taking on 260 clients. At least, that's what Centre claimed.
Religion News Service came out with a story yesterday reporting that the man's story was an elaborate hoax, one that many outlets (including RNS) reported.
Bart Centre, who lives in New Hampshire, came clean after the state Insurance Department delivered a subpoena because he appeared to be engaged in "unauthorized business of insurance" through his Eternal Earth-Bound Pets business. "Eternal Earth-Bound Pets employs no paid rescuers," Bart Centre wrote in a blog post on March 16. "It has no clients. It has never issued a service certificate. It has accepted no service contract applications nor received any payments -- not a single dollar -- in the almost three years of its existence." Centre's business was reported widely by Religion News Service, NPR, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, CBS News, the BBC, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Huffington Post and other media outlets in the past year.
Centre had even told RNS recently that he was disappointed by Camping's recent decision not to make future predictions, claiming it would be bad for business.
Total clientele rose to 245 by May 21. With the world still spinning after Camping’s original prophecy failed to materialize, Centre’s business only inched up to 267.
“It really died off really quickly after May,” Centre said.
He’s also had to handle buyer’s remorse. Six customers who signed up just weeks before Camping’s failed doomsday asked for their money back. Centre declined, pointing to the contract.
Centre and his co-owner, a Minnesota police officer, share the income from their fees with the 48 other people they’ve deemed to be suitable “rescuers.” Most, he said, are “atheists who are happy to give people peace of mind.”
I wonder if he apologized to the reporter because he obviously was working from an elaborate imagination. It must have been pretty annoying to write the retraction story, but it's also part of the follow-up process. Here's more from the updated story.
Richard McCaffrey, the compliance and enforcement counsel who delivered the subpoena, said the subpoena could be withdrawn but the investigation is continuing because of what he considers Centre's contradictory remarks. "He was either lying to the newspapers or he's lying now," said McCaffrey. McCaffrey noted the website for Eternal Earth-bound Pets -- which includes advertisements about Centre's two "Atheist Camel" books -- remains operational. Centre said just two Rapture believers -- rather than his previously claimed 267 clients -- contacted him to sign up for his service. He said he told them he didn't have a rescuer close enough to their area to make a commitment.
Back in December, I suggested that the NPR story could have offered at least one more voice in the story. "Simply reporting on this one particular business with no other voices seems to legitimize it in some way," I said. Sure, adding a second voice would not have fixed the problem that the story was wrong to begin with, but it seems like it would have offered some sort of "okay, but" in the piece.
On another note, I often wonder whether editors go back to the original story on their websites and link to the updated one at the top. The story isn't a correction in the traditional sense, but it is an important update. If you're searching the web and you come across the earlier versions from last May or whatever, you might not come across the updated report. This is a personal pet peeve that publications aren't trying to be a bit more like Wikipedia in letting their stories evolve instead of pretending like once they're published, they're finished. Blogs do a better job of adding an update at the bottom, but traditional media outlets seem to still be struggling with the concept.
Puppy image via Wikimedia Commons.