(Note: this is a republished essay.)
I received an email on January 10th with images of a Great Lakes freighter being pounded by monster waves. It was a forwarded message, and, as is the way with these things, many of the previous recipients were still in evidence. The pathway of strange names stretched out and indented itself like a Dr. Seuss staircase. A few scrolls down and to the right were the pictures, labeled “Lake Superior in November.” One of the embedded messages of the email posits the question, “Ever wonder why the Edmund Fitzgerald didn’t make it..?”, and goes on to point out that “These photographs were taken in November 2006 aboard Misener Steamships MV Selkirk Settler as she crossed Lake Superior in typical November weather.” Typical? Well, maybe that’s a stretch. Still, I wanted to learn more.
The first picture of the “Selkirk Settler” is labeled “in calm weather.” It is an aerial shot, taken from above and in front, as the ship makes its way through a mild chop on a sunny day. The water is cobalt blue, and faded green hills are visible in the far distance. The other four pictures are entirely different. They are POV shots taken from ship level, the 500 foot bow stretching out into the distance like an exercise in depth perspective. The water has changed to a swirling chaos which now and then reforms itself into a frightening onslaught of overwhelming ferocity. In picture three the waves tower dizzyingly above the distant bow. In picture four we see the boat engulfed in a white froth, with vague outlines of the bow beneath. Picture five, the most frightening of all, shows a massive blue wave completely engulfing the entire bow, and seems to show the 730 boat bending and perhaps breaking at the far extremities.
Awesome stuff to say the least. I decided to share the photos on my blog. Why not? Friends and family would definitely be interested. Ever since Gordon Lightfoot’s catchy dirge, which I can only assume made it big in the bigger world, the Edmund Fitzgerald has been the stuff of legend here in Northern Michigan. It has become a feature of our own auto ethnography, woven permanently into the fabric of our collective narrative. Along with Hemingway’s literary imprimatur, the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald has helped to make us seem more real, more hardy, more … important. People like this kind of stuff. The problem is, sometimes these stories can get out of hand.
Instead of just posting the pictures, I decided to do a web search to find out the actual details of the Selkirk Settler, the boat in the photos. I wanted to give credit to the photographer. I found the source of the pictures quite easily, and it didn’t take me long to discover that, although the Selkirk Settler does indeed travel the Great Lakes, these particular pictures were not taken in Lake Superior at all, as the caption below them pointed out: “The storm pictures below were taken during a North Atlantic storm in February 1987 while the ship was en route from Europe to a U.S. East Coast port. The pictures were taken by Capt. George Ianiev, who was the ship’s Second Mate at the time. The big blue wave was the largest wave the ship encountered during the storm; seeing it hit the ship made the vessel’s master question whether they would survive the storm.”
That’s odd, I thought. What would cause this sort of mistake, and why did it happen? Was it deliberate, or some sort of botched collective confabulation?
I poked around a little further and discovered that these selfsame pictures had been making the rounds in a number of places, one of which was the “Lake St. Clair Network.” Down deep in the forum section was a new thread, dated January 11th, with the same bad information. The header, posted by “Snooze Ya Looze”, read, “Wow! Got these pics and story from Capt’n Rob today, I think we need a Bigger boat!!!” Every detail of the phony wording was exactly the same as the email I had received the day before. And yet, it was easy to see that it was wrong. I was excited. I felt as if I had somehow stumbled onto the source of the bad info, like an epidemiologist tracing the Ebola virus back to Kitum Cave. And the date stamps showed the process playing out in real time.
After Snooze Ya Looze posted his amazing bogus photos there were a few predictable grunts of appreciation from fellow forum posters – “Way cool… Thanks for sharing…..”(The Perfect Fit), “Holy Crap!!!” (Capn Ken), “prayers sent” (dnasty), “Ditto!!! Those are some cool pictures!!!” (shaggy).
Then came the first hint of trouble from Scubajay (Jan 11 2007, 06:50 AM): “I followed the link to the web site and one thing I noticed is that the pictures are not from Lake Superior in November but rather the North Atlantic in February.”
Time passes. Two more enthusiastic reactions to the original postings follow, and then at 08:38 AM “Convincor” seems to address the authenticity issue in an oblique way: “THe great lakes can never be underestimated. It is just incredible what they can kick out.”
At 08:54 AM “Soo Sassy” posts this message: “Regardless of where the pics were taken they are incredible. Superior can get p-r-e-t-t-y kicked up so I’m sure the view would be similiar.” Hmmm… so “similiar” is good enough for Soo Sassy. Note the Freudian spelling slip. Nobody seems particularly bothered that they have been fed phony information. I begin to suspect a tag team effort when I discover that Soo Sassy (real name Stephanie) has a personal profile which lists “Convincor” prominently on her “interests” profile. Soo Sassy also has a personal statement:
I still believe in dreams
Where you are is where I’ll be
It’s all that really matters to me
The world out there
Hey! can kiss my a$$
As long as I’ve got you I’m free
“Well,” I think to myself, “this starts to explain things! SooSassy is a free spirited young capitalist who really doesn’t give a toss about anybody else.” But she does have her dreams. I click on her “Visit My Website” link and discover that she and Convincor are co-owners of an embroidery shop. The plot thickens.
Partner Ship (Jan 11 2007, 09:24) tries to bring the thread back to the issue of accuracy: “Yes, I noticed the same thing.” Partner Ship has posted a picture of himself and his partner, Dan, and his sigline is a quote from Teddy Roosevelt which reads, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
LakeNewbie (Jan 11 2007, 09:28 AM), whose personal statement is “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” replies “like it makes a difference ???”
Wow! At this point I begin to sense political ideology coming into play. One side doesn’t really care about phony data, but the other side does. This is starting to make me think…
Ten further posts appear, with absolutely no reference to the fact the Snooze Ya Looze has introduced bogus material into the forum. Idle chit chat and repartee fill up the blanks. Then, at 11:36 AM there is a last ditch attempt by “Pauligan” (female, friends LakeNewbie and dnasty) to address the issue: “Sorry, but that is not a great lake!! Though the pics are still foreboding!!”
Almost immediately (Jan 11 2007, 11:59 AM) LakeNewbie posts this piqued reply:”ok…its a BIG BOAT….in BIG WATER impressive!!! to say the least !!! no matter which body of water its in !”
Time passes, the forum morphs into other topics, such as sea sickness (SooSassy: “I only got sea sick, or close to it, once. I didn’t toss my cookies. Was on a small ship traveling over to the Bahama’s from Ft. Lauderdale….) and the whole matter finishes, days later (Jan 15 2007, 08:56 PM), with this post by “afireman” (sigline: “If it’s not going to matter in a year, why bother with it.”) : “GREAT pictures!!!!”
And there you have it. Not that many people actually care about the source of the pictures or the fact that they have been wrongly labeled. And even when the pictures are shown to be suspect, they can still stand for what they claim to be. That seems to be ok. And when someone does try to point out the error, they are either marginalized or ignored completely. Life just goes on. The bad coinage drives out the good.
At what point do we become absolved of the obligation to be accurate? When is it important to worry about getting things right? And when it’s so easy to verify information, why do so few people seem to try? As long as things conveniently conform to what we would like them to be, isn’t that good enough? “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” they say. Close seems to be good enough for lots of things, really. I mean, to point out the bloody obvious, isn’t this exactly how we came to be involved in this phony war? And even when mistakes are corrected, people go on believing the bad info. What percentage of Americans still think Iraq was behind the World Trade Center massacre? And how hard is it to disabuse them of this notion? It gets harder every day.
So, yeah … I know. Some guy deliberately mislabeling pictures of boats is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. But wouldn’t you think it might matter to get it right, if you could?
© 2008 downstreamer