Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hoax!

James Rainey writes at The Los Angeles Times:

Several big news organizations fell for a stunning, albeit fake, piece of business news this week — that General Electric would voluntarily pay the government a $3.2-billion tax "refund."

Some news-types responded to the hoax with indignation, others bemusement. Both those groups must have been outnumbered, though, by the resolute. This couldn't, wouldn't … shouldn't happen again.

But, take notice, newshounds: The tricksters and political pranksters have numbers. They have big plans. They embrace a lawless tradition and an outlaw code. They will be back. And they are fairly certain you can be had.

In many cases, they will be right. Fake news may not be inevitable. But it will always find a pathway, particularly in the frantic chase that is journalism in the Digital Age. All harried journalists can do is take a moment, breathe deeply and make that extra confirmation phone call, because the next $10,000 Donald Trump restaurant tip, campaign to blockade oil spills with human hair or School for Panhandlers (all fakes swallowed, whole, by some of the media) is just beyond the next deadline.

The responsible group was US Uncut.

The group that staged the fake GE tax-return stunt came together only in the last couple of months, inspired by an article in the Nation magazine that urged activists to build progressive equivalents to the conservative "tea party" movement. "We don't just have a spending problem in America, we have a revenue problem," said US Uncut spokesman Ryan Clayton. "It's not the teacher and cop and their salaries that are the problem. It's the corporations that aren't paying taxes that are the problem."

With a bit of advice from the Yes Men, US Uncut put together its fake press release and dummy GE website (only one letter different than the corporation's actual URL) in about 10 days.

Media organizations that fell for the fakery — including Associated Press and its many clients, who at least briefly picked up the story (including, for just a few minutes, the business page of latimes.com) — didn't do enough to verify the veracity of the emailed press release.

The fake looked and sounded like the real thing, said Tom Kent, standards editor for AP. He declined to give specific details about who failed to verify the news. "If we had followed our procedures this would not have happened," Kent said.

The double-time pace of the news industry has only kicked up a notch in recent years, with reporters rushing to tweet, blog and write the news before the competition. Being first can mean the extra clicks, and ad dollars, that might keep an outlet alive.


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