News Trolls - Inside Jobs

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man.”

— Janet Malcolm, journalist

If there’s one thing that the left and the right can agree on, it’s that news reporting is terribly inaccurate, riddled with bias, and is more likely to cement popular prejudice than to uncover uncomfortable truths. So there’s a certain satisfaction in deliberately planting absurd fiction among all the news that’s fit.

In fact, it’s a long-standing journalistic tradition (with a few critics). Can you track down the legendary nihilartikel?

PBS reports that in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia’s independent radio station B92 became more radicalized, it was in danger of being shut down by the government:

A rumor to that effect was already circulating through Belgrade, and [Veran] Matic took advantage of it. For an entire day the station broadcast as if it had been taken over by the regime, with different DJs, playing Yugo-rock and turbofolk, and relaying official news bulletins. Listeners were “freaking out,” said Matic. “People were calling and saying: ‘What’s happening? What are you doing to us?’” The following day, B92 broadcast the tapes of the more than 600 phone calls received at the station during the prank, sending what Matic called “a clear message to the authorities that they would encounter strong resistance in closing down B92.”

Slate magazine reported that down in Florida, the locals liked to go monkeyfishing at an island where primates were being raised for medical tests. They’d cast hooked fruit over tree branches and then, if they were lucky, a poor monkey would be reeled in, “flying from the trees, a juicy apple stapled to its palm.”

To many readers, this screamed of bullshit. It reads to me a bit like a “modest proposal” — you provoke outrage at torturing monkeys and then ask implicitly why the indignant reader isn’t outraged at the everyday torture of raising animals to undergo cruel medical tests.

In any case, Slate editor Michael Kinsley at first huffily defended the story, and then, after more questions began to be asked by his journalistic peers, he eventually backed down and apologized.

Which reminds me of another Kinsley project, The New Republic, which was hacked by its associate editor Stephen Glass (who also pulled the wool over the eyes of many another editorial staff). In 1998 he was discovered to have been writing fiction in the form of news articles and features.

And this might also remind you of Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her (alas, fictional) story of Jimmy, the 8-year-old heroin addict. Last spotted, Cooke was working retail, but had signed on to a movie project about the hoax. (See also, Mike Barnicle)

It’s not too late to play… Slate is still ripe for fooling.

The 2004 favorite for the Janet Cooke Award for Creative Journalism is Jack Kelley of USA Today, who “fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories,” including some that the paper had nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

When the King of Nepal imposed press censorship in February of 2005, the newspapers protested by staying within the letter of the law. Some newspapers published editions with blank front pages or with the censored or forbidden parts of news stories replaced by blank space.

Others printed irrelevant or absurd pieces — like one editorial about the importance of socks. “Socks are indispensable,” it began, and concluded, “Dear readers, let us make a resolution to wear clean socks this summer.”

Over one crazy month in 2003, shortly after the news media made a hash of the U.S.-Iraq war — reporting tomorrow’s incorrect rumor almost as fast as they were apologizing for yesterday’s — there were a rash of media frauds. A Microsoft internet-capable toilet, the iLoo, was announced and then debunked and then un-debunked, a multi-fatality cargo plane disaster in the Congo turned out to have killed nobody, an Oregon county mental health department turned out not to be in dire need of a Klingon interpreter, and Jayson Blair, a reporter for the New York Times, turned out to have been relaxing at home basing his stories on TV news and wirefeeds as his byline jumped around the country gathering scoops.

A couple of months before that, the London Sunday Telegraph reported that a number school districts were banning hot cross buns from their school kitchens because they might offend the sensitivities of non-christian students. Not.

Meanwhile, reporter Barbara Stewart breathlessly reported for the Boston Globe the bloody horrors of a baby harp seal hunt… that had been delayed due to inclement weather and hadn’t yet taken place when the article describing it was printed.

In 2002 the San Francisco Chronicle repeated the tall tale that a man had installed an automatic teller machine as a tombstone so that his relatives would have to visit his grave in order to retrieve their inheritance.

Also that year, when the fad of reality TV seemed like it would never die, and each new contender was more crass than the last, the Los Angeles New Times reported that a new NBC show, “Survive This” would be hosted by two teenagers who had recently survived a kidnapping and rape. It was a satire, but it wasn’t until NBC denied the report that anyone noticed.

Inspired by all of this media mayhem, and dismayed about journalism standards, Paul Maliszewski operated under a number of aliases to plant bullshit and satire in The Business Journal of Central New York:

How many fake writers did I invent? About as many as the months I spent working at The Business Journal full-time.

In my spare time I manufactured whole companies. They emerged from my head wildly profitable and fully staffed with ambitious assistants obeying the bidding of sage bosses. If my fictional characters filed tax returns, I probably would have been personally responsible for creating more new jobs in central New York than any non-fictional company.

I littered my fictions with bogus references and bastardized quotations from literature, less to show off my fine education than to underline how utterly irrelevant it now seemed. I quoted Donald Barthelme but made the words pass through the dead lips of Adam Smith. In another counterfeit, I drew names of characters from a New York Review of Books essay about Vincent Van Gogh forgers and the businessmen who knowingly peddled the knock-offs.

Maliszewski even translated a School of the Americas torturer’s instruction manual into business-speak to report on management skills. Kudos!

In 1890, John Ebert Wilkie, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune managed to fool his readers by faking the unmasking of a hoax that never existed — The Indian Rope Trick.

In 1875, the Chicago Times went to print with a gruesome story of a horrific theater fire that took the lives of hundreds. Audience members were trapped, unable to escape, thanks to poorly-designed buildings and the unsafe, overcrowded conditions encouraged by a greedy theater owner.

The story was a hoax, as hinted in a subheadline far into the article (“Description of a Suppostitious Holocaust Likely to Occur Any Night”). But it dramatized the real problem of unsafe conditions more effectively than straightforward muckraking could have.

The warning in the hoax proved to have been prophetic. A theater fire on December 30th, 1903 killed hundreds in Chicago — the theater was overcrowded, people trying to escape died pressed up against doors that opened inward, neither fire alarms nor sprinklers were installed in the building, and some exits had been locked.

TOKYO, May 28, 1947 (UPI) “An Army radio station described for a gag today a ‘battle’ between American soldiers and a ‘twenty-foot sea monster’ in the streets of Tokyo. The description was so vivid that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was reported to have been fooled, as well as thousands of Americans and Britons. For more than three hours the telephones of Station WVTR and of Army agencies were clogged with telephone calls from Americans and Britons, some of whom were frankly frightened. According to a member of the station’s staff, one caller was General MacArthur.”

The WVTR report went on in all seriousness for over an hour, giving the play-by-play as the monster failed to be subdued by small-arms fire and eventually was only stopped by flamethrowers. Japanese police and U.S. soldiers went on the alert and ran around Tokyo on a monster quest. Several years later, Godzilla was filmed — coïncidence?

Gregory M. Jones lost his job at the Roswell Daily Record after he spiced up a sports page story on a golf tournament by throwing in a quote from a character in the movie Caddyshack.

He would have been safer quoting Greg Packer, who has appeared as the voice of the ordinary guy on the street in hundreds of newspaper articles.

Or heck, if you feel like tempting libel, why not just put fake quotes in the mouths of real bystanders?

C. Louis Mortison added spice to his journalism with tall-tale filler-articles about the amazing things that happened to one mythical Lester Green.

On April Fools Day, 1957, the BBC television news broadcast a splendid story about the Swiss spaghetti harvest.

Twenty years later, The Guardian invented the island nation of San Serriffe, which has since become a staple location of hoax journalism.

Perhaps after the harvest, the Swiss vacation in San Serriffe and watch their delightful restagings of ancient Greek apopudobalia matches.

Edgar Allan Poe knew that he was a better fiction writer than a newspaper reporter, but also that news paid better. So he wrote a fictional news story about two people who crossed the Atlantic on a hot air balloon and he got it printed in the New York Sun. (Poe also took on a hoaxbusting rôle, investigating and exposing the ruse of Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess-playing robot, and writing about “Diddling” [con games] “Considered as One of the Exact Sciences.”)

Another fine hoax on (or perhaps by) the 19th Century New York Sun was the announcement that life has been discovered on the moon, seen through a very powerful telescope, and resembling bipedal bats.

The New York Times breathlessly rushed to print in 1992 with an article about “grunge” that followed the standard template for reporting on the latest youth music and fashion trends. A sidebar described the “lexicon of grunge” — interpreting the hip lingo of the whippersnappers (“swingin’ on the flippity-flop”: v. hanging out). Of course, it was more blatantly fictional than that which is more frequently seen as “fit to print.”

In 2002, the Associated Press fired reporter Christopher Newton after discovering that many of the people and organizations cited in his stories could not be found. Jack Shafer of Slate magazine dug a little deeper into this story: “None of Newton’s disputed talking heads are the primary sources for the stories. They appear halfway or two-thirds of the way through his stories, very much according to the AP formula, to contribute the opposing view of a professor or an interest group spokesperson… Content-free, these cliché sound bites add nothing to the story except to say that there’s another side to the story.… Every day, thousands of reporters pad their stories to fit the stock news formula… If it’s a journalistic crime for Christopher Newton to invent characters who mouth empty but passable clichés, what’s the name of the offense when respectable reporters deliberately harvest the same worthless clichés from bona fide sources?”

Indeed, sometimes it seems like the news media ethics police blow their whistles loudest at jaywalkers like this, while tipping their hats politely at the more dangerous and bloody-handed reprobates.

Commentator, satirist and all-around fun guy H.L. Mencken published a made-up history of the bathtub for shits and grins, never guessing that it would be accepted as gospel truth from that moment on. It’s still taken seriously in some quarters.

Luther Blissett is trying the same sort of game with his fictional venereal disease, “The Clam.” Jeez. It’s almost getting to the point where you can’t trust what you read on the web anymore.

Sometimes, if culture jammers are getting lazy, agents of the press will engage in their own pranks. The San Francisco (California) Weekly responded to increasingly angry anti-gentrification sentiment by running an ad promoting a yuppie anti-defamation demonstration in hopes of catching other papers (and activists) with this tasty lure.

In 1983, at the height of the “Cabbage Patch Doll” hysteria, a couple of radio announcers in Milwaukee told listeners that a B-52 would be dropping over a thousand of the dolls over Milwaukee County Stadium. A couple dozen people showed up, prepared to hold their credit cards up for an aerial photograph so they would be eligible to catch one of the plummeting must-haves.

The satirical newspaper The Onion is a delight, but even more delightful when you find out about all the people who took its articles seriously.

Michael Born, a freelance documentary producer in Germany, made up the news as he went along, creating German KKK rallies, interviewing Albanian “Kurds” and German “Austrian terrorists,” and following a domestic cat hunter he hired to stalk some cute fluffy thing with a rifle to report on this alarming trend.

These TV newsmagazines are ripe pickings for freelancers who know that fiction and fact don’t amount to much when it comes to paycheck time.

Janet Cooke
Janet Cooke

Stephen Glass
Stephen Glass

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On This Day in SniggleryJune 25, 2001: Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, finally admits that the magazine’s report on the bizarre sport of monkey fishing was “willful inaccuracy.” (See News Trolls for more info)