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Why the Media Keep Falling for Hoaxes

Why the Media Keep Falling for Hoaxes

By Carl M. Cannon - March 14, 2013

The Daily Currant, run by an entrepreneurial young man in Michigan, is a website designed to make people laugh, and perhaps think, but not to fool them. Its headlines are shrewd enough to be funny, but not really believable:

“U.S. Sends Toy Guns to Syrian Opposition”

“Hugo Chavez Will Remain President of Venezuela”

“Sean Penn Praises Chavez, Calls George Washington a ‘Loser’ ”

There are, of course, millions of extremely literal people out there. And the World Wide Web is, yes, a global medium. So for folks in the vast cyber-audience who don’t speak English perfectly -- or who don’t understand American wit -- the Daily Currant (the name itself is a pun) has an “about” section on its site that begins this way:

Q: “Are your news stories real?”

A: “No. Our stories are purely fictional. However they are meant to address real-world issues through satire and often refer and link to real events happening in the world.”

Nonetheless, there are invariably people who click through the Internet each morning in search of something new or offbeat without taking time to read the fine print or discern the humorous cues. A couple of days ago, just such a person -- he happened to be in Austria -- noticed the following Daily Currant headline: “Paul Krugman Declares Personal Bankruptcy.”

The accompanying story claimed that outspoken New York Times columnist had listed $7.3 million in debts with a bankruptcy court, including $621,537 in outstanding credit card balances, some of it used to purchase “rare Portuguese wines.”

“Rather than tighten his belt and pay the sums back,” the story added, “the pseudo-Keynesian economist decided to ‘stimulate’ his way to personal recovery by investing in expenses he hoped would one day boost his income.”

The joke here, obviously, is that Krugman loved the $875 billion stimulus passed by Congress in 2009 -- he wanted it to be bigger -- and is utterly sanguine about the $1 trillion that has been added to the national debt each year Barack Obama has been in the White House.

“This is the birthplace of Austrian economics!” Vienna-based Toni Straka subsequently told Erik Wemple of the Washington Post. “It was just too good of a story that the prototypical Keynesian follower, Krugman, had declared bankruptcy.”

“Too good” is exactly what it was, but Mr. Straka didn’t listen to the invisible gnome on his shoulder that all journalists must have -- the one whispering whatever the German language equivalent is of “Too good? Too good to check? Really?”

Instead, he shoved the item out there on his Prudent Investor blog, which migrates into a news feed called Financial Content, which, in turn, shows up more or less mechanically on the Boston Globe’s online site. There, it was spotted by the conservatives toiling away at Breitbart.com, which reported the fake Krugman item as fact, and embellished it with attitude.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. Last year, gullible Daily Currant readers lit up Twitter in outraged response to an invented quote that had U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin offering breast milk as an antidote to homosexuality. And just last month, a contributor to a Washington Post blog fell for a Currant “scoop” claiming that Sarah Palin had signed a deal as a political analyst with Al Jazeera.

(One could certainly ask if Al Jazeera’s hiring of Palin would have been weirder than Al Gore’s selling his whole network operation to the petrodollar-funded entity -- that really happened -- but I digress.)

The Onion, which the Currant is patterned after, has also duped a fair number of unwitting readers, along with various despots (and pseudo-journalists working for despots) over the years.

China’s People Daily fell for an Onion spoof proclaiming Korea’s pudgy Kim Jong-un the “sexiest man alive.” Iran’s state-run news agency stole an absurd Onion piece claiming that 77 percent of rural whites in the U.S. would rather have a drink with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than with Barack Obama. The New York Times issued a correction related to another Onion feature that quoted the president as saying, “I sing in the shower,” while picturing him on the cover of the teen magazine Tiger Beat.

This kind of thing proliferated from the outset of the Internet; or, more precisely, when the advent of the Web coincided with a development the new technology helped precipitate: newsroom cutbacks first felt in media organizations’ copy desks, veteran editing corps, and in-house libraries and librarians.

I first encountered this problem in the waning days of the Clinton administration, and wrote a piece about it for American Journalism Review a dozen years ago. Among the examples I cited was another boner by the New York Times, which found evidence that in China, Hollywood’s most popular movie titles were translated in goofy ways.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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