The Importance of Getting Things Right

On Sunday, the New York Times posted an article going in depth into the motivations of Anthony Comello, the Staten Island day laborer who allegedly shot and killed Gambino family boss Frank Cali, supposedly after being brainwashed by QAnon propaganda. To show his allegiance to the mysterious conspiracy avatar, Comello got a blue ballpoint pen and scrawled a number of Trump and Q slogans on his hand, including a large, unmistakable “Q” in the center of his palm.

Why someone aligned with Q would kill a Mafia boss, when Q has never mentioned the Mafia, remains a mystery, a baffling element of a baffling murder. Times reporter Ali Watkins spoke to Comello’s lawyer, and both seemed a little baffled by the whole thing.  Which is entirely appropriate, because QAnon can get pretty baffling if you’re not ensconced in the arcane mythology and jargon of the conspiracy theory.

As such, the story is a solid dive into the possible motivations of an alleged killer, but does make a few minor errors about QAnon, one of which was corrected and one that wasn’t. So when confronted by a major newspaper story that exposes their movement’s murderous craziness, yet makes a few inconsequential errors, QAnon believers did what you’d expect them to do: pretend the Q motivations were fake news, and concentrate solely on the minor errors, while brigading the reporter, and fellow NYT writer Maggie Haberman after she re-tweeted the story.

The first error is that QAnon believers think JFK Jr. is alive and secretly planning to run for president in 2020. Of course, many do believe JFK Jr. is alive, but I don’t know of any who believe him to be running for president in 2020. Because, of course, God Emperor Trump has his continued reign as president all but assured for as long as he lives. Some do, however, think Trump was planning to use his 4th of July extravaganza to announce that Mike Pence was being punted from the ticket in favor of a secretly-alive-for-20-years John John. This didn’t happen, of course, but it’s easy enough to conflate the beliefs, given that they’re all nonsensical.

The second error is more troubling, but not for the reason QAnon believers might think. Watkins initially wrote that according to Comello’s lawyer, Comello began following QAnon in the weeks following Donald Trump’s election. As any Q believer worth their $30 Etsy t-shirt will tell you, QAnon didn’t exist until late October, 2017. So HERP DERP FAKE NEWS FAKE NEWS ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE HERP DERP, right?

Hardly. Watkins (or her editor) later corrected the article to read that Comello’s lawyer said that Comello was drawn to far right conspiracy theories after Trump’s election, and only came to QAnon through those conspiracy theories, and fairly recently. As corrections go, it’s fairly inconsequential. It’s clear that Comello was driven to murder through his belief in QAnon, and that he came to QAnon through other conspiracy theories, and not directly, doesn’t change that fact.

But what makes the error troubling is that the Times didn’t note a correction, which it absolutely should have. Watkins made a mistake, which is fine and understandable and why corrections exist. But to not let readers know that a correction was made is shoddy journalism. Worse, bolsters the fake outrage of conspiracy theorists, who have endless wells of grievance that they’re only too happy to dip into to get one over on the Failing New York Times.

There are a lot of reasons I don’t debate conspiracy theorists. Partly, it’s just not worth my time, and involves no payoff for me other than being right, and I already know I’m right. But beyond that, skeptics and critical thinkers are beholden to the truth, and have to get every fact right with impeccable sources. We can’t make mistakes, ever, lest they be exploited ruthlessly. But when you’re a conspiracy theorist, you can make up any old crap you want, and be safe in the knowledge that the skeptic, in most cases, can’t prove it’s wrong. Of course, they can’t prove it’s right, which is their burden. But they don’t understand that, because most conspiracy theorists are terrible at debating.

The thrust of Watkins’ article was right on the money. Comello was radicalized by internet conspiracy theories, came to QAnon at some point, and was driven by his belief in “the deep state” to allegedly shoot a man ten times. But she made mistakes. Hence, she’s given QAnon believers ammunition to use against her and all skeptics and QAnon debunkers.

Making a note of the correction would have helped, but even just making a mistake dooms you in the eyes of the movement. They can claim that Donald Trump is using Twitter typos to communicate go codes to the cybernetic special ops teams ready to roll up the baby eating cabal’s convention in an abandoned Nazi moon base, and nobody blinks – but if you dare mix up the timeline of their (entirely imaginary) movement, you’re fucked.

Nothing that Watkins got wrong (and again, these are minor errors, ultimately) changes the fact that Comello was a QAnon follower who allegedly killed a man, then pledged his allegiance to Q. The other crimes committed by QAnon believers haven’t changed, nor has the heartbreak of people watching helplessly as their loved ones discard them in favor of the broken, carnage-obsessed QAnon “community.”

Yes, she should have had a QAnon expert look at it. Yes, she should have explicitly noted that a correction was made to the published piece. But none of that invalidates the story that, for many people, will be the first time they’ve really gotten a look at the violence and brainwashing that Q is built around. And no timeline error is going to change that.

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