Vic Chesnutt - Photo by Jem Cohen
“Music and…” is a new monthly column from The Bay Bridged Programming Director Ben Van Houten exploring significant issues impacting music, culture and digital media.

If it feels like Vic Chesnutt was just here, and then suddenly gone, you aren’t alone. The artist spent the last few months of the year touring North America behind two acclaimed late 2009 releases. September’s At The Cut was a collaborative effort with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and members of Silver Mt. Zion, while October’s Skitter On Take-Off was a more stripped-down work with Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins.

It was something of a shock, then, when news emerged on Christmas Eve that Vic Chesnutt was in a coma, later confirmed to be the result of an overdose of muscle relaxants. Over the course of the evening of the 24th, word spread across the Internet that Chesnutt had passed away, and fans expressed grief and sadness. The news, however, turned out to be false. Vic Chesnutt was, at the time, still alive.

The wide repeating of the story raises important questions of accountability for bloggers, music and otherwise. We are, as a species, used to repackaging the original reporting of others, often without closely examining the sources we’re trusting. We’re also, I think, addicted to breaking news, and many seem to succumb to a “post first, update later” mentality that prides speed over accuracy. But it never occurred to me that anyone would delete a long-since-published false story rather than correct it to acknowledge the error. Seeing that happen repeatedly was deeply troubling.

[audio:] Vic Chesnutt – “Flirted With You All My Life” (from At The Cut)

Judging from the available record, Mr. Chesnutt’s death appears to have been first reported by music blogs in Athens, Georgia (his hometown), but the story soon spread like wildfire to national music sites and across Twitter. Over the course of the evening, however, the Athens sites deleted their original posts, presumably, one suspects, as the authors learned that something was amiss with the reporting. The choice by sites like Athens Blur and Athens Music Source to delete their reporting, instead of correcting or amending it, meant that it was impossible for a reader to learn that the original stories weren’t correct, only that they were no longer there.

Google News headline for Billboard's Vic Chesnutt story (from Brooklyn Vegan)
Image originally posted by Brooklyn Vegan

While the Athens blog stories disappeared, media outlets turned to two different sources for confirmation of Mr. Chesnutt’s death. Billboard appears to have relied on a tweet from Chunklet’s Henry Owings, although Billboard too eventually pulled its story. The result: readers who clicked on the Google News headline “Vic Chesnutt Dies at 45” were redirected to an earlier story about Mr. Chesnutt’s coma that contained no acknowledgment of the now-vanished death report. Vic Chesnutt story

Spinner, on the other hand, cited to an post titled, unequivocally, “Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt is dead.” The author of that article wrote that “according to reports,” Vic Chesnutt had passed away, without identifying any specific reports or sources. That was sufficient for Spinner, who reported this as confirmation of Mr. Chesnutt’s passing, mistakenly identifying the as the San Francisco Examiner in the process. I should note that I once made the same mistake, and both the SF Examiner and are owned by Philip Anschutz‘s Clarity Media Group. The two, however, operate very differently, and there’s a well-documented lack of original reporting that’s part of the model. story on Vic Chesnutt

In a later update, the Examiner author acknowledged his erroneous reporting, noting that “a series of news reports, including this one, prematurely announced Chesnutt’s passing.” That may be understating the case, given the extent to which other sites had relied on his article as confirmation, but some acknowledgment is surely better than none. Like Billboard, Spinner pulled their post early Christmas morning and redirected readers to their coma report, without acknowledging the without acknowledging their flawed reporting of Chesnutt’s passing. Those two sites surely aren’t alone in mishandling the story: how many others published a death announcement and then deleted it, perhaps hoping that no one would notice? Equally troubling, how many sites deleted user comments exposing their mistakes?

Mistakes in reporting are surely inevitable. Hell, we’ve certainly made plenty of errors on The Bay Bridged. And I wouldn’t say that every revision to a story merits some sort of explicit notation of the correction made. At the same time, instant reporting means that instant correction is similarly easy, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to note previous inaccurate reporting when it comes to matters of life or death. Brooklyn Vegan, for example, reported the original news of Mr. Chesnutt’s death, then updated their post to reflect user comments pointing out that the Athens sources were disappearing. Pitchfork supplemented its reporting on Twitter, where it followed the evolution of the story. These sorts of efforts certainly require more work than simply reposting or retweeting someone else’s claim, but if you’re going to pass along semi-confirmed “breaking news” about a sensitive issue, it only seems fair to take an appropriate amount of responsibility. Or, to put it another way: there is no “Undo” button on the Internet.

At 5:27pm Eastern Time on Christmas Day, the New York Times reported that Vic Chesnutt had passed away at the age of forty-five. A donation page has been set up, with 100% of the proceeds going to his family, and I’d also encourage you to visit Constellation Records for some thoughtful words by some of his friends.