JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

News Squib#12 – When Fake News Was Funny

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 Digital tablet on newspaper concept for internet and electronicIt’s Squib Saturday. Time to share the best, most interesting (or most entertaining, or most outrageous) tidbit of information I’ve gleaned from all the stuff I’ve read –or done– this week. Today: When Everyone Could Tell the Difference Between Fake and Real News

Fake news has been in the…well, in the real news headlines recently. Mark Zuckerberg is fretting about algorithms and standards which could keep fake news off Facebook; Hillary Clinton’s aides are blaming fake headlines about Pope Francis endorsing Trump for steering voters away from her; and most notably the Washington Post this week zeroed in on the #1 reader of an online website that traffics in fake news.

Not real revelations

Candidate Donald Trump speaks at press conferenceThe website is Infowars, and Dana Milbank, a WaPo columnist, this week called out President-Elect Trump for tweeting based on its unsubstantiated, unsourced revelations. Milbank cited an Infowars headline from November 14 that stated : ” Report: Three Million Votes in Presidential Election Cast by Illegal Aliens; Trump may have won popular vote.”  Milbank wrote that Infowars was the only “media” outlet which reported the “millions of illegal alien votes” story, and that the website offered no evidence or sources for the story.  He juxtaposed that headline with a tweet from President-Elect Trump on November 27 that read: “[…] I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Milbank then referred to other news headlined by Infowars which included “news” items about a possible UFO in Florida, and about juice boxes being part of a chemical warfare operation to make children gay.

Oh my! Oh my!

imagesDoes that take me back to the heyday of fake news? Fake news is not a by-product of the digital age. It existed decades ago in varying degrees. Before Infowars, before Breitbart (“Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”) we had the supermarket tabloids. In the interests of full disclosure, I was the news editor of one of them, Star Magazine, but while I was news editor, at least, I know that the Star never knowingly published a fake news story. However, the bottom feeders in this group, publications like the now-defunct Weekly World News and Sun, with their tawdry front pages nestling at the bottom of racks in supermarket checkouts were a different matter.

Lessons from the Past

Where am I going with this? To share my memory of one of the funniest fake news stories of that era, and its consequences — and what the President-Elect could learn from that today.

The fake news story in question was published by the now-defunct Sun in 1992. The headline on the story was : “World’s Oldest Newspaper Carrier, 101, Quits Because She’s Pregnant.” The story stated she was quitting because she had become pregnant by a millionaire in Stirling, Australia. None of it was true: No millionaire. No pregnant 101-year old, and no such place as Stirling, Australia. But, so far so good, right? Entertaining story; no harm done.

However, the publication needed a photo of this phenomenally fecund newspaper carrier because as everyone knows,  a photo is worth a 1,000 words. According to well-circulated bar stories at the time, the photo editor tasked with the assignment went into the publication archives and found a photo of a newsstand operator in Arkansas.  The photo was dated 1980, and the newspaper carrier in the photo was identified as being about 80 years old at the time.  Good enough, he thought. What are the chances that this lady is still alive? And, so the Sun ran the photo, with her posing in front of her newsstand, alongside the story.

Fiction & Fantasy

United States Court HouseThe rest of the story belongs to the publication’s litigation history since the newspaper carrier in Arkansas was still alive, was 96, and was alerted to the article — and her photo– by a neighbor.  She was eventually awarded $1.5 million in damages by a federal court. But, that isn’t even the best part of the story.

No, the funniest part of the story is the defense that was offered up by Sun editors and lawyers at the trial:  which was, something to the effect that the story couldn’t be defamatory because “everyone knows the Sun isn’t a real newspaper, and that the stories in it are all fiction and fantasy.”

It didn’t do the Sun any good in court, but yes, back then, most readers who picked up their “newspapers” at the supermarket checkout pretty much knew they were picking up entertainment, pulp fiction about alien babies, UFOs and Bat Cave dwellers, and not news stories meant to be taken seriously.

Should Not Be a Problem

Today, it’s much more difficult. By the time snippets from legitimate news sites and from online sites masquerading as news sites are tweeted and re-tweeted, and posted to Facebook timelines, who can tell what’s real and what’s fake? For the millions who get their news only from Twitter or Facebook — it’s a real problem.

For the man who is about to be inaugurated as the leader of the free world, a guy who has access to intel briefings, and who can hire the best advisers and aides — it should not be.





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