Free Press memory hole

A memory hole is any mechanism for the alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts, or other records, such as from a website or other archive, particularly as part of an attempt to give the impression that something never happened. The concept was first popularized by George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eight-Four, where the Party’s Ministry of Truth systematically re-created all potential historical documents, in effect, re-writing all of history to match the often-changing state propaganda. These changes were complete and undetectable.


By Joel Thurtell

“Complete and undetectable.”
That is probably what Detroit Free Press scribes thought they had accomplished when they changed the paper’s website to more accurately distort the facts contained in their October 1, 2015 article about massasauga rattlesnakes.
On October 2, 2015, I emailed a proposed letter that I hoped the Free Press would publish to correct important mistakes published in their article. I never heard from anyone at the Free Press.
But today, November 13, 2015, I called up the problem article and discovered that without notice, it had been corrected. Sort of.
The statement by a naturalist who claimed that no human had died of a massasauga bite in the last century has been scrubbed from the post. The article now reports that a child was injured by a massasauga bite in 2013. There is still no mention of deaths, although my letter informed the paper of four deaths due to massasauga bite since the 1930s. Furthermore, I showed the Free Press letters editors a letter published by the Free Press in 1989 reporting the death of a girl from massasauga bite. The letter, from a Grosse Pointe Woods woman, was sent to the Free Press in response to “Snakebit!,” an article researched and written by me and published in the Detroit Free Press magazine on July 29, 1989.
Had the present-day Free Press reporter done a little research in his own newspaper archive, he would have discovered my article. He might also have seen a September 5, 2013 USA Today article, originated at the Free Press, reporting the illness of a child bitten by a massasauga rattlesnake and now alluded to in the “corrected” website version of the Free Press October 1, 2015 article.
Why not tell people that massasauga venom  is second only to the Mojave rattler in toxicity? Why not admit that drop for drop, massasauga venom is more toxic that that of the Western Diamondback?
I’m talking public safety and public health. People need to know that, if disrespected,¬† these little reptiles can do serious harm and may even cause death.
Instead of doing spin control for the massasauga, the Free Press would do better to serve the humans who are its readers with the truth.
Here is the letter I emailed to the Free Press on October 2:

An October 1 Free Press article on eastern massasauga rattlesnakes gives the erroneous impression that a bite by one of these reptiles poses minimal risk to humans. A naturalist quoted in the article claims incorrectly that no human has died of a massasauga bite in the last 100 years.

On July 29, 1989, the Detroit Free Press Magazine published a cover story, “Snakebit!,” written by me. I reported that a retired professor of microbiology and immunology at the Indiana University Medical School in Indianapolis and an authority on snake venom, Sherman Minton, had compiled a list of four human deaths attributed to massasauga bites in the mid-twentieth century.

Massasauga venom is the second most toxic of 21 rattlesnake species. Massasauga venom is more potent than that of the Western Diamondback rattlesnake. That more people have not died or been seriously injured by massasaugas can be attributed to their reclusive personalities and the fact that these small snakes don’t pack as much venom as larger rattlers.

A Grosse Pointe Woods woman responded to my article, reporting that her cousin died of massasauga bites in Georgian Bay on July 17, 1962. “For years,” she wrote,”park rangers have given the snake great PR without mentioning that a bite can be lethal to humans.”

My article described how physicians’ ignorance about massasaugas nearly caused the death of a man who was bitten accidentally. Another man thought a rattler was harmless, picked it up and was bitten. He was hospitalized with a serious injury.

Naturalists and the media need to recognize that the bite of a massasauga rattlesnake can lead to serious illness and even death.

Joel Thurtell

The writer is a retired Detroit Free Press reporter

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