In the long and depressing history of "he said," "she said" reporting, there may never have been an article more inane than the LA Times story last week titled "Could Apple's iPhone 4 be cursed?" The article took the premise of a curse so seriously that the reporters even interviewed a numerologist:
The string of woes have been so striking that some have sought alternative explanations, including the notion that the phone may simply be jinxed. One theory focuses on the number four.
In China, where the iPhone is manufactured, four is considered to be bad luck. That's largely because the word for four is nearly identical to the word for death. Many buildings in Hong Kong do not have a fourth floor, and people try to avoid phone numbers and license plates with "4" in them.
Device manufacturers such as Canon Inc. and Nokia Corp., wary of the digit's ominous significance, have been known to skip from 3 to 5 when assigning model numbers to their products. Apple, though, seemed uncowed by the superstition.
The number requires a degree of care and attention that Apple may not have heeded, according to numerologist Daniel Hardt of Indianapolis.
"If shortcuts are attempted, the whole thing falls apart," Hardt said. "The 4 can also be karmic, having some overtones of a problem stemming from some past activity. It seems very likely to be the case that there is some karma at play in this situation that has caused the phone to not be as functional as it should be."
Lydia Chen, associate director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, said she grew up "knowing that number 4 was something you avoided."
"I would personally never say it's the number 4 causing all of this," she said. "Still, maybe people should avoid iPhone 13 when it gets here."
At the very end of the article, the Times interviews a professor who puts these claims into context as "magical beliefs," but the reporters present it in "he said," "she said" format:
Phil Stevens, a professor at SUNY Buffalo who studies superstition, said the iPhone's problems could be considered bad luck, a jinx, or even a curse — all versions of what he called "magical beliefs" that gain traction in tougher times, when reason often takes a back seat to fear and anxiety.
"A jinx is the idea that cosmic forces that surround us are somehow out of whack," he said, whereas a curse requires that someone actually pronounce an imprecation.
"To say it's cursed, you'd have to go back and find the person who cursed it," he said. "Because who would do this?"
Maybe it's cursed, maybe not -- who knows? You'll never see a better illustration of the absurdity of this sort of reporting. It's an embarrassment to journalism.