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Charles Madigan (Credit: Eventbrite)

Charles Madigan, longtime writer and editor for The Chicago Tribune claimed recently to have invented a new word: info-pimp. “I just invented that word. I like the sound of it,” he wrote in his trademark staccato prose.

Like a brute with a new rhetorical club, the 28-year Tribune vet proceeded to pummel the daylights out of bloggers and unsavory journalists who peddle bad information. “People who pick up questionable things and present them as real are info-pimps,” wrote Madigan. “It conjures images of parasites, laptops in place, typing up a storm and then putting it out on the street, where the gullible, thinking it’s the real deal, just gobble it up.”

ASRL intern Sid Johnston quickly unearthed a significant irony in Madigan’s story. While extolling the rigorous fact checking of the Tribune, Madigan had neglected to check his own facts. Johnston quickly discovered “info-pimp” had been in common usage since the late 1990’s.

To claim invention of an obscure but already-in-existence word seems a minor offense. But it’s not a small thing when you’re using that word as a weapon to slaughter your enemies and, simultaneously, as a pedestal to prop up the Tribune’s impeccable fact-checking department.

And it all may have gone under the radar if we had not called him.

During our brief initial conversation, Madigan said he didn’t know the word had already been invented and was in circulation among certain, “underground” (quotes mine) circles. Nor did he know about the unkind remarks accumulating about his column in the blogosphere. “I was not trying to mislead anyone,” he said. “But the word was new to me.”

A letter to Jim Romenesko on Poynter.org titled “Info-pimp has been around” mentioned a blogger called Happyslave who used the term a year ago in a harsh critique of television news.

Our own Internet scouring turned up numerous info-pimp references, the oldest dating back to 1997 by Wired writer, Tom Claburn. About the Madigan info-pimp flap, Claburn, who is now editor-at-large for informationweek.com, joked, “Perhaps we both should be chastised for impugning the character of pimps.” He also gave this more measured reflection, “We all make mistakes. I hope he does the right thing and offers a correction.” (On his blog, Claburn mentions our query and then likens media ethics work to police internal affairs and, curiously, the Spanish Inqusition.)

The following Tuesday, Charles Madigan did something both highly unusual and admirable. In response to our phone call, he offered a lengthy retraction and apology in a follow-up column titled “Info-pimping older than any of us caught.” (He also confirmed by email that we, indeed, were the “blogger” he mentions in his article that “drew [his] attention to the problem.”)

Whether the apology came out of a genuine feeling of remorse, or a desire to scoop us on damage control grounds is unclear. Signs, however, point to damage control. To my question about whether the incident changed the way he saw the relationship between newspapers and the blogosphere, or his approach to his column, he replied by email: “no. i made a mistake. i didn’t google the word. it’s a learning process.”

In his retraction, Madigan commendably did not heap blame onto the Tribune’s fact-checking department. “It is not the fact-checking department’s responsibility (to verify a detail). It is my responsibility to make sure what I’m writing is accurate,” he said.

In another conversation, Madigan told us that journalism and commentary have different functions and inherently different verfication standards.  “If you are writing an opinion column you are in different territory than a news story,” he said. That seems a dangerously cavalier approach. A simple Internet search by the Trib’s fact checking department would have quickly revealed that this rhetorical ingot was not forged in the smithy of Charles Madigan’s soul.

It would also have spared him and the Tribune embarrassment.

Madigan also offers one particularly searing critique of the media-at-large: “Hubris really is our worst media sin in many ways,” he wrote.

Perhaps, then, newspapers like the Chicago Tribune should humbly and sincerely reexamine the role of bloggers in the changing climate of journalism. A careful look might reveal they are vital, not antithetical, to the evolution of a new and more inclusive kind of journalism. At the very least, they are the ones still buying the papers or logging in to news sites. Bloggers are the readers. And they want to believe what they read.

Info-Pimp: An Etymology
By Sid Johnston

Not surprisingly, the Oxford English Dictionary has no definition for the word “info-pimp,” but it defines “pimp” in two ways. One is “a man who takes a proportion of the earnings of a prostitute, usually in return for arranging clients, providing protection, etc…” Charles Madigan used the word pimp in the OED’s second, more derogatory sense: “A person who panders to an undesirable or immoral impulse, appetite, etc.; (gen.) a despicable person.”

The word info-pimp can be traced on the internet as far back as 1997, when Tom Claburn, editor of InformationWeek.com and former Wired writer, used the term info-pimp in a Wired article called “Body of Evidence.” In his article, he writes “‘Information wants to be free’ is a statement only info-pimps could love.” Claburn uses the term info-pimp to describe people who illicitly sell personal information for profit.  By this definition, the info-pimp dupes the public into thinking that all information is equal. This “aggregation of personal facts,” Claburn says, “highlight[s] the disingenuousness of those who advanced the view ‘information wants to be free.’”

On March 21, 2006, the happy slave, a blogger on Blogspot, also used the term while commenting on Anderson Cooper’s blog about the media’s coverage of female victims of violent crime. He writes “Of course, many of us have known for quite a long time that all the large commercial ‘news’ outlets have no actual reporters, nor editors, just different ranks of infopimps. Like good little infopimps, they pander.”

The term info-pimp is clearly derived from its better known ancestor, “pimp”. Despite the negative connotations of that word, certain sub-cultures use “pimp” in a strikingly different manner. The contemporary usage of pimp as a non-pejorative can be traced back to 1967 with Robert Lee Maupin’s (a.k.a. Iceberg Slim) novel, Pimp. The book is a fictional autobiographical novel that tells the story of the criminal underworld from a pimp’s perspective. Pimp was explicit in its details about the struggles in the ghettos of the United States. Maupin’s book became popular among African-Americans during the 60s and spawned a sub-genre, with titles such as Whoreson: The Story of a Ghetto Pimp and Black Gangster.

The pimp archetype has since gained a cult-status. The word now conjures images of desperadoes and Robin Hoods, from characters like Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch (who was only alluded to but never called a pimp), to Snoop Dog’s alter-ego. Like the man in green tights, pimps are romanticized rogues. Unlike Robin Hood, however, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, pimps take advantage of the communities that support them.

Just like its parent word, the term info-pimp is fraught with controversy and ambiguity. The main reason is that there is currently no concise definition. Yet, we live in an age in which anyone with a computer can help decide the meaning–and participate in the debate.

Sites like the Urban Dictionary allow you to submit definitions and vote for the best among them.

With the resources available on the blogosphere, Charles Madigan could help define the word he formerly claimed to have invented. But only the public can decide whether the definition is acceptable or not.

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Chicago Tribune’s Charles Madigan Retracts after iMediaEthics investigation

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One Response

  1. Steven Enstad says:

    We’ve owned the domain infopimp.com since May of 1997 and have been using the term since 1996.We would like royalty payments from all folks using this term. 🙂 Or, at least, some credit.Best Regards,-steve

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