FBI's Fake Story Upsets Seattle Times, Bugs Copy Editors

The FBI lured a suspect to a fake Seattle Times story. Now the paper's editors say the Bureau undermined public trust in the Times.

FBI's Fake Story Upsets Seattle Times, Bugs Copy Editors
Electronic Frontier Foundation

It's the media's job to hold government accountable. So, when the government co-opts the press for its own purposes, members of the media get angry.

Documents show that, in 2007, the FBI set up a fake Seattle Times web page to spy on a high school student suspected of making a bomb threat. (Via Electronic Frontier Foundation)

The Seattle Times staff is not happy. Its editor Kathy Best says this, "Our reputation and our ability to do our job as a government watchdog are based on trust. ... Not only does that cross a line, it erases it."

A technologist for the ACLU discovered the FBI plot. It was mentioned in documents that had actually been posted online since 2011 but never noted publicly until this week.

Now, the point of the FBI's plan was to get the suspect to download spy software by tricking him into clicking the story link. It worked, but the fake story is now public, and, well, to journalists there are a few things that stick out.

This is going to sound nerdy, but the story, which had an Associated Press byline, didn't follow Associated Press style. The FBI inserted what looks like five spaces after each period, committed one of journalism's cardinal sins with use of an Oxford comma and called MySpace "My Space." Hear that? That's the sound of copy editors crying.

The Bureau was apparently convincing enough. The suspect was identified and arrested. Though the Associated Press criticized the FBI as well, telling Politico, the "ploy violated AP’s name and undermined AP’s credibility."