Spoofs As Fake News

Posted Nov. 03, 2009, at 6:52 p.m.

Political satire and comedy is an established tradition. But two spoofs lately have crossed the line and done a disservice to our democratic system.

One of these offenders was Andy Borowitz, a clever standup comedian and popular Internet commentator — as well as a pro-Obama favorite of many liberals. In what could have looked to some like a legitimate news item datelined Washington, the online Borowitz Report said: “Just moments after she broke with fellow Republicans and voted in favor of health care reform, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) came under fire from the GOP for allegedly lying about the nation of her birth.” “This vote is going to raise suspicions, once again, that Sen. Snowe was born in Kenya,” said GOP Chairman Michael Steele. “We demand that she prove, once and for all, that she is definitely not Kenyan.”

A final paragraph said: “Orly Taitz, leader of the so-called ‘birther’ movement, said that Sen. Snowe’s vote was ‘textbook Kenyan’ behavior: ‘She’s putting her tribe first.’”

Those accustomed to the Borowitz riffs promptly e-mailed the item to people in their address books, and in the chain-letter culture of the Internet, it went close to going viral.

The other offense came last month from a Washington activist group called the Yes Men, who staged a fake news conference at the National Press Club. A man in a dark suit pretended to represent the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and told invited news reporters that it now favored pending climate-change legislation. The statement was a complete repudiation of the Chamber’s earlier opposition to the bill. Twenty minutes into the “press conference,” a real Chamber spokesman burst into the room and denounced the event as a hoax.

To many people, both of these incidents were clearly spoofs and worth a giggle. But surely some literal-minded folks must have taken them seriously, especially the Chamber incident. Reuters, The New York Times and The Washington Post briefly reported that the Chamber had abandoned its opposition to the climate change legislation.

What good did they do aside from providing a quick laugh and some satisfaction for the already committed? They were not designed to persuade doubters.

Made-up news was once unnecessary, in the era when a U.S. Senator like Everett Dirksen of Illinois could get off lines like, “A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

So it remains today.

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