Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Surfeit of Donkeys

The blogosphere has been much abuzz of late with, stories about the mainstream media making asses out of themselves, whether it be Time getting owned by Greg Greenwald or the Washington Post frontpaging a story full of scurrilous rumors about Barrack Obama that had been debunked online months earlier.

These incidents called to mind something I'd noticed last month when Robert Redford's film Lions for Lambs opened. The title is drawn from a phrase purportedly used by a German general to describe the brave British soldiers being led by incompetents as: "lions led by lambs". As a number of reviewers in the U.K. (and my brother) have noted, the commonly used phrase is "lions led by donkeys", which seems better for emphasizing incompetence as opposed to meekness.

In checking out what appeared to be a misquote, I found Wikipedia's entry showed that the common attribution is to generals Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann. There were also earlier usages by the Times of London. In googling the phrase, I did come across this entry on TimesOnline. "While some military archivists credit the author as an anonymous infantryman, others argue that the source was none other than General Max von Gallwitz, Supreme Commander of the German forces. In either case, it’s generally accepted to be a derivation of Alexander the Great’s proclamation, “I am never afraid of an army of Lions led into battle by a Lamb. I fear more the army of Lambs who have a Lion to lead them.”

In looking into this, I could not find even one "archivist" or "expert" who attributed this to either Gallwitz or Alexander the Great.

If you can't trust the MSM to do even such basic fact checking, what else might they get wrong? I know the result is trivial here but I recall seeing somewhere where they suggested Ambien as the indicated treatment for someone suffering manic depression. That's the sort of mistake that could cause someone to spend a long time hospitalized or to take their own life. I'm sure I've got that reference around here somewhere.

The bottom line is don't believe everything you read in the papers and be sure to do your own research. For specialized topics, there are great search engines like scifinder and webofscience but it is truly amazing what, to paraphrase Brian Williams' immortal line, even someone who hasn't left the house in a number of years can accomplish just by using google and wikipedia.