Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wheeler, Blumenthal, and the Google Era

Earlier this week the stories about Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal lying about his wartime service record and former Harvard student Adam Wheeler lying about his academic resume both hit the airwaves.

I'm not that surprised by either.

The Wheeler case is a lot less famous, but it rivals The Talented Mr. Ripley and Catch Me if You Can put together. The long and the short of it is that one young man doctored his high school records, his SAT scores, his college transcripts (he pretended to be transferring as a 4.0 student from MIT when he was accepted), and submitted bogus recommendations on stolen letterhead. He had basically gotten away with it but overreached a bit, when he submitted plagiarized work for an overseas scholarship competition and tried to transfer over to Yale after charges of academic dishonesty at Harvard came to light.

Blumenthal, who is running for the US Senate seat from CT recently vacated by Christopher Dodd (and yes, I intentionally did not just say 'Chris Dodd's Senate Seat'), only did what politicians -- and all storytellers, really -- have been doing since time immemorial -- he stretched the truth and then began to *live* that stretch until it took on a life of its own. Now, he's apparently decided to take the offensive, despite the fact that someone who earns his living as a lawyer, dealing with the finer points of language's minutiae, seems to have transposed "during" with "in" and "other people" with "we," and can't see any problem there at all.

Wheeler isn't the first student to doctor a transcript, and Blumenthal isn't the first politician to fib about his background (just ask VP Joe Biden's non-existent 'coal miner ancestors' who helped tank his 1988 Presidential bid, but were strangely never mentioned by the media in 2008).

The shame in both cases is that Wheeler could've lived a perfectly successful life without ever having to lie about his academic achievements, and Blumenthal could've sailed right into the Power Brokers' Inner Sanctum (the US Senate) without ever having to lie about his service. But regardless of whatever happens to either, both are now going to be wearing some major-league scar tissue for years to come.

The part that surprises me, though, is that all this happened in the age of Google, YouTube, and instant connectivity.

Many people who served in Blumenthal's Marine Corps Reserve Unit would've known he'd never actually set foot in Vietnam, as would many others close to him who'd taken the time to learn the whole story at a time when Blumenthal wasn't giving an emotional stump speech (Chris Shays, for instance, apparently knew the truth and had worried about the train wreck that Blumenthal set up for himself).

Frankly, I'm surprised no one blew the whistle on Blumenthal sooner. Many years ago, it would be easy to completely lose track of a person, but in the era of Web 2.0, anyone famous that you once knew is just a Google search away. (And who out there hasn't Googled an old acquaintance out of pure curiosity?)

Ditto for Wheeler. I mean, it just seems like it would've been too easy for the Harvard admissions office to call his old high school, whose number was just one simple search away, or to check down the road at MIT with any of those recommenders (whose contact information could've been gleaned...wait for it...with a Google search). In fact, I'm really surprised they didn't. And how anyone submits any plagiarized (and already published!) work in the era of Google scores instant stupidity points.

Going forward, I would imagine that imposters like Blumenthal and Wheeler are going to have a harder and harder time fabricating, as the Internet becomes even more ubiquitous and people become about as used to Google searches when they wish to know something as they are to reaching for a fork when they're hungry.

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