“One would think that one would grow tired of the sport because it no longer looks sporting. More like fishing out of barrel. But each catch is a new adventure and makes a great story. I personally have many trophy fish in my den. And, like all fishermen, I prefer exhibiting the big ones, but I’m proud of everyone that I’ve caught.”
— Joey Skaggs, sniggler
It can be easier and more satisfying to get your work of fiction reported in the newspaper or broadcast on CNN than to wait for it to be accepted by some obscure literary journal. And it’s not all that hard!
The Raëlians are copycats! In 1978, long before the more recent cloning noise, a fellow named David Rorvik reported that the cloning of human beings was already being accomplished at a remote laboratory, spurred on by a California millionaire desiring a cloned heir.
But the news media still can’t seem to resist ’em - hoaxes about clones, tuplets, male pregnancies, bizarre births, cross-species impregnations, virgin conceptions, and the like show up all the time.
But, alas, suggestions that reporters stop being so goddamned gullible continue to fall on deaf ears.
Adrian Lamo, who would later become infamous for betraying American dissident Chelsea Manning to the U.S. government, once broke into the Yahoo! News web site and started altering the wire stories that appeared there:
Another clever htmlerator exploited a quirk in how web browsers interpret web page addresses to make his page look as though it were appearing on CNN’s own site. Amazingly enough, “CNN.com unwittingly helped perpetuate the hoax by directing users to the external bogus report; this made ‘Singer Britney Spears Killed in Car Accident’ the ‘Most Popular’ story credited to CNN.com, without it ever actually residing on the news site’s pages.”
Crackers also hit the USA Today website — adding stories about a new White House propaganda minister and about the Pope admitting Christianity to be bunk.
The Falun Gong movement took things up a notch by hijacking the satellite feed of one of China’s largest television stations to broadcast Falun Gong propaganda.
And Army Newswatch, a TV show produced by the U.S. Army was hijacked one day in Webster, New York, by twenty minutes of hardcore gay porn.
And who can forget the day “a clandestine broadcaster in a Max Headroom mask broke into two TV shows in Chicago… [and] uttered various profundities… before pulling his pants down and allowing a confederate to spank him with a flyswatter.”
In 2003, humorist Jesse Brown invented a persona and a similarly-named magazine, Stu, that the persona was about to launch. It was going to be like a Maxim for the mediocre, he said. An industry mag and the National Post were fooled into running articles about the new "magazine for the adequate man."
In a place they call Tunbridge Wells, some folks invented a caped crusader — a fellow who wore a cape and mask and dropped out of the trees at random times to do good deeds. They wrote some letters-to-the editor to thank this mysterious masked man for various acts of derring do. Then the media took the sniggle and ran with it. The Australian and New Zealand national media grabbed ahold, and then pretty soon the British Sun and the Telegraph and the Times wanted in, and it wasn’t long before Reuters spread the news and CNN landed a blow on the dying horse.
They tell their story of The Monkey Man Phenomenon on-line.
The folks at P45 had a lot of fun inventing fake news stories and then watching the allegedly real news media run with them.
A fake press release found on the internet by a reporter in late 2005 was good enough for the Los Angeles Times, who quoted from it in a front-page article to claim that Wyoming’s governor Dave Freudenthal “decreed that the Endangered Species Act is no longer in force and that the state ‘now considers the wolf as a federal dog,” unworthy of protection.”
Did you know that a lot of the segments you see on your local news broadcast aren’t done by reporters but instead by public relations firms? If you do know this, it’s probably because of the fuss that was raised after the Bush II administration produced some publicity spots about how great their new Medicare reform was, and many news programs ran the spots unedited, as if they were the work of reporters.
Before long, the news came out that the Bush II crew had been creating fake TV news stories right and left all about the success of its past policies and the urgent need for its upcoming initiatives.
“Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.,” a jubilant Iraqi-American told a camera crew in Kansas City for a segment about reaction to the fall of Baghdad. A second report told of “another success” in the Bush administration’s “drive to strengthen aviation security”; the reporter called it “one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history.” A third segment, broadcast in January, described the administration’s determination to open markets for American farmers.… In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.
When Dubya was caught at this Orwellian game, he just blustered right through without apologizing or promising to stop. California Governator Arnold Schwarzeneggar knew a good thing when he saw one, so he started making fake news too.
In 1864, newsman Joseph Howard used his inside knowledge to hack the Associated Press newswire and plant a fake story about U.S. President Abraham Lincoln announcing a massive military draft. This caused a brief financial panic, in which stock prices fell and the price of gold shot up. Howard had invested a tidy sum in gold the previous day, and made out pretty well — until he got caught.
Thirteen of the largest daily newspapers in Russia rushed to print in 2001 with the news of an exciting new five-floor consumer electronics store in Moscow. The store didn’t exist — it was cooked up by a public relations firm and designed to show how by putting the right money in the right palms you can get the Russian media to print commercial disinformation as though it were news — in all but one of the thirteen examples, verbatim as received.
This is a bit more serious in Russia than it would be, say, in the United States. In Russia, this practice is both unethical and illegal.
A couple of Czech film students pulled a similar stunt, enlisting “advertising and public-relations agencies, graphic designers, printers, jingle-writers, even crowd-psychologists from the Czech army to help them devise a marketing campaign announcing the biggest and cheapest hypermarket ever seen in Prague.” The market existed only in its publicity, and when more than a thousand people showed up on its opening day, they found themselves confronted with nothing but a vacant lot.
Azhar Abidi wrote a tongue-in-cheek article on “The Secret History of the Flying Carpet” as if that mythical form transportation was a long lost technology that was ruthlessly suppressed by the Camel lobby. You guessed it — the press took it seriously.
When 60 Minutes reporters arrived at an “autonomous youth center” in Zurich to report on the radical youth scene there, a crew from the center captured them, tied them up, and covered them with paint — all the while video-taping the events.
Then they released the crew and went on to sell the video tape to CBS.
A couple of psychology grad students created a group called Citizens Concerned About Barney that complained that the big purple dinosaur of kids TV fame was responsible for leading children to “cocaine, gang violence, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, and maybe even marijuana.” CNN (among others) found the bait too tempting to resist.
The tabloid TV newsters down under got drawn in by a group that agitates for unemployed workers:
Rick Mercer, a wit from Canada, is fond of pulling media pranks that exploit the ignorance of the Maple Leaf State that is borne blissfully by residents of the other fifty.
During the U.S. government’s presidential campaign of 2000, he posed questions to candidate George W. Bush about Canadian Prime Minster “Jean Poutine” — their Prime Minister actually went by the name “Jean Chrétien,” while “poutine” is an artery-hardening dietary staple of the great white northerner. Naturally, Bush didn’t catch on.
Other highlights: Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee praised Canadian efforts to rescue their “national igloo” from the threat of global warming. And a number of U.S. professors signed Mercer’s petition calling for an end to the barbaric “Toronto polar bear hunt.”
Britain’s satirical TV show Brass Eye turned its cycloptic gaze on the moral St. Vitus Dance that erupts whenever the topic of pædophilia comes up in the media. They hit the mark and then some — fooling politicians and celebrities like Phil Collins into recording absurd public service announcements. And then, of course, all holy hell broke loose as a gazillion people screamed “that’s not funny” all at once.
Luther Blissett of San Luis Obispo, California — home of the agricultural finishing school and day-care center known as Cal Poly — created a mythical fraternity called Lambda Sigma Delta (get it?) and suddenly letters-to-the-editor started appearing in local papers about the frat’s magnanimous activities.
Letters-to-the-editor are a good place for the news troller to get started. Peter van der Linden forged an editoral from the attorney general promoting the use of illegal drugs, and sent in a silly letter allegedly from a group called The Society for Making English Grandeur More Accessible (a.k.a. S.M.E.G.M.A.).
A yippie provocateur wrote a letter-to-the-editor of the Berkeley Barb in 1967 claiming to have gotten high from smoking banana peels, and pretty soon the “news” was making headlines from the San Francisco Chronicle to Time magazine. (Sport Fishing started a similar rumor about the hallucinogenic properties of the goo that coats freshly-caught catfish, claiming that “the catfish goop was popular among college kids, who called themselves ‘slimers’ and paid as much as $200 for a fresh catch.”
Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter-to-the-editor back in 1790 in which he claimed to have found a well-reasoned defense of slavery remarkably similar to a recent speech by Senator Jackson - only this defense was written in 1687 by one Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim to justify the enslavement of white Christians in Algeria.
A group of Italian cultural terrorists spoofed a tabloid TV “missing persons” show called Chi l’ha visto? with a report of someone who was so missing that he never even existed. “We did not want only to throw discredit on the show,” reported the pranksters, “but also put their inquiring eyes off the track and make them waste their time following a nonexistant person, so that the real runaways might remain anonymous and uncontrolled.”
Harry Reichenbach fed the media spurious scoops in order to get free publicity for his patrons. Among his best hacks was getting smutbuster Anthony Comstock to become outraged about the painting “September Morn” whereupon the prints that had been taking up valuable shelf space gathering dust at a dime a pop suddenly sold seven million copies at a buck each.
A marketing firm got some well-deserved exposure through its campaign to raise public awareness about the emerging sport of professional indoor ice fishing. “Catch the Fever” is the advertising slogan of the Minnesota Woodticks.
Remember the mysterious “companion object” following the Hale-Bopp comet? It set off a lot of alarms among the usual suspects of abductees, ufologists, end-timers and Heaven’s Gate cultists. Turns out it was the brainchild of one Chuck Shramek, who (according to a friend) has been playing these sort of pranks for some time now.
In 1983 a tape recording of a telephone conversation between U.S. government president Ronald Reagan and British government prime minister Margaret Thatcher was sent anonymously to newspapers; a cover letter claimed that the recordings were the result of a crossed line. London’s Sunday Times and the San Francisco Chronicle covered the story, with the Times following the lead of the U.S. State Department, which described the tapes as part of “an increasingly sophisticated Russian disinformation campaign.” The tapes were actually the work of the punk rock group Crass who made them by splicing together bits of speeches made by the two politicians that were recorded from news broadcasts.
Photo-doctoring tools have long been necessary tools of the trade for the revisionist historian trying to remove Trotsky from all the old class photos or what have you. Now that the ordinary schmoe can do a professional fake job, the Pulitzer Prize-winning news photo is more art and less luck than ever before. (See, for example, this cheering throng pictured on the front page of the 9 April 2003 London Evening Standard, or this Cuban street scene.)
Of course, you still have to be sensible about it. Don’t do what the University of Wisconsin at Madison did. They were preparing their undergraduate application materials and for the cover, they wanted a photo of the student body that demonstrated its alleged racial diversity. Alas, they could find no such photo, so they added an arbitrary black student’s face to a photo of a sea of white football fans. As if that wasn’t enough of a Bad Idea to begin with, the token negro turned out to be Diallo Shabazz, “a prominent African American student activist who has never attended a UW football game and is deeply involved in efforts to promote campus diversity.”
How to diversificate your campus
Truth is no stranger to fiction.
The police aren’t above using these ever-improving tools of photo and video editing to improve evidence.
And, apparently, neither are the Scientologists.
How many times has a country gone to war in the midst of a frenzy whipped up by disinformation planted in the media? You might as well just ask how many times a country has gone to war. The answer’s the same.
Those of you from the U.S.A. may “Remember The Maine” — or the barbarous Huns — or the Tonkin Gulf incident — or the cocaine found in Manuel Noriega’s fridge — or the babies thrown out of incubators by barbaric Iraqi troops — or the prisoners starving in Serbian death camps — or the specific, credible threat to Air Force One on 9/11 — or Saddam Hussein’s advanced nuclear weapons program — or the dissidents fed through wood chippers in Iraq, — or the anti-war politician who was being paid off by Saddam’s spies.
As if there weren’t enough real photos of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of the coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003, the Daily Mirror had to go to press with front-page story highlighting fake ones. Caught, they at first reacted with another front page story defending and standing by the accuracy of the fraud. It took about a week for the thick heads to start to roll — starting with the editor-in-chief.
Remember how Pierre Salinger was convinced that the U.S. Navy shot down TWA flight 800? He read it right here on the internet where falsehood dares not show its face! And Seymour Hersh almost got taken in by phony documents proving that Marilyn Monroe was paid hush money by JFK to hide their affair.
One reporter tells the story of how he bought into the whole Church of Kurt Cobain hoax in the media feeding frenzy that followed the suicide of the latest jukebox hero.
Speaking of the fabulously dead, Princess Diana (before she died) was impersonated by an actress who was caught on film cavorting in her bra — it was all over the papers the next day.
Two hard-working modern masters of the media hack are Joey Skaggs and Alan Abel. Skaggs has conned the press with such silliness as a computer that can replace trial judges, a virtual sex company, his annual New York City April Fools’ Day Parade, and a chain of theme-park-like graveyards. Abel, for his part, founded the anti-animal-nudity activist group “Society for Indecency to Naked Animals” (don’t laugh), launched a campaign to tax people based on their weight, and sprung on the press the group Citizens Against Breast-Feeding among his many media stunts. And despite what you might read in the Times, he’s still alive and kicking.
I should also mention here Orson Welles’ and Howard Koch’s 1938 sci-fi radio play The War of the Worlds which was interpreted as a newscast by many horrified listeners. This was shadowed more recently by Jing Huiwen, whose news of the Sibuxiang beast spread alarm in China.
Radio personality Howard Stern’s fans have taken on the media hack as a crusade — zapping TV news coverage of the O.J. Simpson car chase, the U.S. Capitol shootings of ’98, and any other news event, no matter how trivial, that they can use as an opportunity to sling baloney.
Some media hacks are not the product of deliberate hoaxers, but are best understood as autonomous and contagious idea infections: Urban legends like the LSD Tattoo warning, or the ongoing media portrayal of the United States as a free and democratic country.
Want to get started in the news trolling hobby? Form a chapter of the activist group Arm the Homeless in your community. The press can’t seem to resist biting when you throw them bait as good as this tasty blend of left-wing homelessness activism and right-wing firearm advocacy.
The Yes Men managed to sneak a fake spokesperson for Dow Chemicals onto the BBC World Television news show, on the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, to announce that Dow would liquidate its Union Carbide subsidiary and use the proceeds to compensate the victims and clean up the site. Then, they issued a fake retraction, which also caught some news organizations unawares.
They also fooled CNBC by posing one of their talented members as a spokesperson for the World Trade Organization. He went on to debate an anti-globalization protester by mimicing a dogmatic free-marketeer: “Markets are still the answer no matter what the cost. For example, a market in human rights violations can allow countries that want to abuse people to buy ‘Justice Vouchers’ from those who don’t.”
Sometimes all you have to do to hoax the media is to set a trap and wait for a lazy reporter to come along and trip it. As a way of discouraging blind faith in internet sources, the urban legend debunkers at snopes.com have a special part of their site set aside to invent and pronounce “true” a set of tall tales. It works.
The automated news aggregator at Google News got snookered and selected the fake news article “Canadian Authorities Arrest US President Bush On War Charges as its top story on 1 December 2004.
And Pakistan’s Kashar World News ran with a parody news report that Dubya, while visiting Afghanistan, met with three Americans who had been convicted of running their own private prison and torture chamber there, as “a show of support.”
A caller who went by the name Bob Dobbs impersonated a New York Transit Authority employee and kept Ted Koppel of ABC News occupied for a few minutes. You can find more examples at thankyoufortakingmycall.com.
A protester at The Masters golf tournament gave his name to a reporter as “Heywood Jablome.” The reporter asked him to spell it out, without blinking. The next day, a quote from Heywood Jablome appeared in the sports section of the paper. Oops.
Similarly, KTVU in California aired an on-camera interview with one Mike Litoris.
|On This Day in Snigglery||May 29, 2000: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “farewell poem” appears in La Republica. It wasn’t his poem and he wasn’t going anywhere.|