When you’ve got the Internet at your disposal, the world’s at your fingertips. It’s an invaluable research and communication tool. Those are the standard platitudes. I won’t quibble. Still, to avoid injury and damage, tools must be used with skill, caution, and thought.

I’d just started reading the Globe and Mail yesterday, when I came to a dead stop at a column on page A3. According to the sidebar, Sarah Palin had not only worked for CNN, she’d had her own show, “The Sarah Palin Power Hour,” which she quit in February, 4 months into a 2-year contract!

How’d I miss that? I watch CNN! I never saw— Maybe they meant Fox News Channel? That’s where’s she’s been working since January….

Palin on CNN is an improbable and bad fit. One of my favourite television personalities, Judy Sheindlin, often says, “If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not true.” Yet, here it was in “Canada’s National Newspaper,” bold as brass: Sarah Palin had had a show on CNN, and (by implication) is unreliable; she’s quit something else before the end of her tenure. There’s only 1 problem. The source was a column in Advertising Age, published July 10, 2009, 7 months before the supposed departure.

The column, The Media Guy, by Simon Dumenco, is a satire about Ms. Palin’s celebrity and staying power in the public eye, the news media’s obsession with star personalities, and CNN’s own wavering fortunes. It has an internal dateline of February 18, 2010. It was published 7 days after  Ms. Palin announced her resignation as Alaska’s governor.

I can’t swear that a web search was involved in preparation of the Globe and Mail’s sidebar, but I’d be very surprised if 1 wasn’t. When I used Google® as a search engine to check my memory and cultural awareness, a link to the Advertising Age column appeared near the top of the search results, followed by pages of tweets, blog entries, and archived search pages, all referring either to the original, or to each other.

Guess what pops up in those Google® search-page content snippets? Here are the top 3:

“Inside the Collapse of CNN’s ‘The Sarah Palin Power Hour’ – WASILLA, ALASKA (Feb. 18, 2010) — Once again shocking the media establishment, former Alaska…”

“Sarah Palin announced that she was leaving her CNN talk show, ‘The Sarah Palin Power Hour,’ after just four months on the air and well short of the terms of…”

“The former Alaska governor’s career as a TV talker showed so much promise. What went wrong? The Media Guy imagines another surprise move by Sarah Palin.”

Faced with a page or 2 like this (and there were more), the Palin-on-CNN scenario seems possible. The third snippet is from Advertising Age. It contains the word imagines. It links to the original column. (A friend would say, “Clue, much?”)

Using both Bing® and Yahoo!® Search, I got only 1 hit in the first 10 on either for the full phrase “Sarah Palin Power Hour”: the Advertising Age column. On both results pages, it’s the first hit listed. There may be a lesson here.

After I checked out the truthiness of the side-bar factoid yesterday (for which no source is cited), I went to the Globe and Mail web site. The on-line version of the column appeared without the offending sidebar. While writing this entry today – and fact-checking my day-old  observations – I discovered the on-line print edition has both the column and the side bar. I found it using Google®. Absent yesterday, today it was tenth on the list.

Remember, I’m not going on here about the evil of the Internet or of search engines, but about how these tools are used. They require a curious and sceptical mind (and some research skill) to be effective, especially since ill use leads to propagation of misunderstanding, and perpetuation of error. With the Net, that’s a potential wildfire.

(Note: Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski had nothing to do with the sidebar that appeared with his column [yes, I asked him], yet at this time, only his name appears with this material, in print and on-line. The Globe and Mail has not yet published a correction or retraction.)

I’m forever,