Thursday, March 27, 2008

No hoax is a joke

With the Los Angeles cousins of the merry pranksters at the Chicago Tribune victimized by an embarrassing hoax, does deceiving a newspaper seem as funny today as it did last week?

That’s what I would ask those who branded me a dour, old fuddy-duddy for criticizing the Tribune for deceptively entering a video in a contest sponsored by the Chicago Sun-Times. Adding injury to insult, the Tribune deliberately misled the Sun-Times reporter seeking to confirm the bona fides of the purported creator of the video.

The shoe was on the other foot today, when the Los Angeles Times, a corporate cousin of the Tribune, had to apologize for a false story that was based on phony FBI documents evidently fabricated by a federal prisoner, an oops discovered and brilliantly reported here by The Smoking Gun.

The discredited Times story, which was based in part on the apparently phony documents, suggested that two associates of rap impresario Sean (Diddy) Combs were behind an unsolved 1994 attack in which rapper Tupac Shakur was pistol-whipped and shot several times. The story, which was vigorously denied at the time, has been topped at with an apology, but the original is cached here on Google.

To be sure, the damage caused by inducing a newspaper to erroneously accuse someone of attempted murder is far more serious than misrepresenting the source of a light-hearted video about potentially changing the name of Wrigley Field to Viagra Park. But the transgression – deliberately misleading a newspaper, and, by extension, the public – is the same in both cases.

For some twisted reason, the fellow who evidently created the phony documents that duped the L.A. Times sought to implicate himself in the Tupac assault. I can’t fathom his motivations.

But I would think that journalists fortunate enough to work at a newspaper like the Chicago Tribune would be committed, first and foremost, to fully, fairly and faithfully informing the public. Misleading the readers of a competing newspaper, no matter how amusing the stunt might have seemed to the pranksters, is a violation of the public trust that all respectable newspapers are supposed to serve.

While it is painful to see a proud newspaper like the Los Angeles Times embarrassed by some flake, it is downright depressing to see journalists at one publication conspiring to plant false information in another.

That’s not an amusing prank. It’s unethical behavior. And it’s wrong.

The public trust, an increasingly scarce commodity these days for newspapers, was violated in the cases of both the Tupac story and the Tribune’s stealth video. The only difference between the two cases is that the Los Angeles Times was the victim and the Chicago Tribune was the perpetrator.

And, for the record, I am not old. Although I recently turned 59, most people say I don’t look a day over 58½.


Blogger Howard Owens said...

Are you seriously comparing the two incidents?

In one you have a video contest -- a contest -- the kind of light fare some think demeans serious journalism in the first place ... some think that has no meaningful public consequence and so therefore should not be done.

In the other you have important reportage published in real news columns that turns out to be false, and false in such a way that it could put people's lives in danger.

Is there really a comparison here?

Alan, you do a great job on reporting on newspaper financial affairs and business. For that, I very much respect you. So, with all due respect, lighten up!

Further, this sort of cross town rivalry may be one of the missing factor's in today's journalism. In an era when newspapers have seemingly lost all personality, thank God for this video fun. This one event probably did more to restore credibility in readers' minds for the Tribune and the Sun-Times than any number of Pulitzer-winning investigations ever could.

12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may not be old, but newspaper hoaxes are:

The Moon Hoax involving several of New York's papers, and others here.

The difference today is hoaxes, like these, are uncovered much quicker, and are much harder to brush under the table. Light-hearted tweakings like the Trib gave aren't what's hurting credibility, it's more their perceived aloofness ... which pranks like that help dispel.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Going from "the Tupac hoax is no joke" to "no hoax is a joke" is quite a logical leap. You really don't see the difference between these two situations? You really expect us to believe that you're upset because the public trust was violated, rather than because your old buddies at the Sun-Times had to eat crow when their "Zell no" joke backfired? You may not be old, but you are intellectually dishonest.

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're kidding, right? This must be an early April Fool's joke.

1:46 PM  
Blogger TJ said...

Alan, your criticism of the Trib's actions always conveniently leaves out one crucial fact: The Sun-Times' video contest was a direct attempt to embarrass the owner of the Trib and, by extension, the Trib itself. It was part of an ongoing campaign by the paper to drill Sam Zell - and, by extension, the Trib - for floating the idea of changing the name of Wrigley Field.

Thus, I think it's difficult to knock the Trib for beating the Sun-Times at its own game. You keep saying the Trib misled the Sun-Times with the video submission, but Kevin Pang made it clear that if the S-T had bothered to ask them if they were from the Trib. You seem to think they should have come forward and admitted the prank, which would have completely defeated the purpose of the prank.

Frankly, I'm proud of the Trib for standing up for itself, because I don't think papers do enough of that in this day and age. If your rival wants to mock you in public, I think you have every right to mock them back.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apple, meet orange...

2:30 PM  
Blogger Bradley J. Fikes said...

Your comparison is wildly off base and trivializes the Times' grievous failings in journalism. I can scarcely believe you're serious.

2:47 PM  
Blogger rknil said...

As a foolish pseudoeditor once said before he ducked into yet another secret meeting with his very confused design posse: Two wrongs don't make a right.

That statement had no application in that situation, but it does here. The Sun-Times' effort was immature and juvenile, but that doesn't mean the Trib didn't use deception. It did.

Also, Howard, I think you need to get back to encouraging people to "get wired" while ignoring any aspect of what content they're delivering while "wired up." You keep coming here saying "lighten up," but then you make "points" like the tape duel boosts the credibility of the papers. You destroy your own credibility when you say things like that.

(Of course, you have no credibility with me anyway, but that's a whole other issue.)

3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeez, get over it. Everyone can see ya just gots an ol' grudge.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Howard Owens said...

@rknil I have no credibility with you? That's a joke, right? At least I post under my real professional name. I don't hide. And you?

5:49 PM  
Blogger 'tricko said...

"Transgression"? Jeez, I can't believe you're still clinging to this, Mr. Newsosaur. Worse, that you'd compare it to the LAT/Tupac case. Apple meet orange? More like ant meet elephant.

In that nearly extinct universe known as "two-newspaper town," punking on one another is a long, noble, honorable, and just plain fun and funny tradition. That's all they were doing at the S-T AND the Trib.

I think back fondly to the caper we pulled when I was a staffer at The Denver Post in 1989. Months earlier, our competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, had stolen (OK, outbid when we weren't looking) the Garfield comic strip out from under us and, as Christmas 1989 approached, were celebrating it with gigantic replicas of Garfield (in a Santa hat) and Odie waving from the wedding-cake-tiered rooftop of the Rocky's building on West Colfax.

It was within eyeshot of our office a few blocks away. We couldn't stand looking at it. We decided to get even -- or at least have a little fun.
You DO remember "fun," don't you, O'Saurie?

Early one morning the week before Christmas, four of us infiltrated the Rocky building -- two dressed in workmen's overalls and carrying a toolbox and a ladder; a third in street clothes, carrying what looked like a gigantic Xmas card or gift, wrapped in butcher paper and a big red ribbon. The lobby security guards at the Rocky helpfully held the door and elevator open for us.

Once inside, we went out a third-floor smoke-break door onto one part of the roof, then scaled up the ladder to the next level, where Odie was perched on hindquarters, eyes bright, mouth open, tongue lolling out.

Within minutes, the "Xmas card" had been stripped of its butcher paper to reveal . . . a 4-by-8-foot rolled-up copy of The Denver Post, with a "Merry Xmas" headline.

Yeah, we stuck it proudly in the dog's mouth, hightailed it back downstairs, and had one of our photogs capture the scene. Oh, we also alerted the TV media to do the same.
For an hour and a half, our message greeted downtown rush-hour commuters, until men in suits and ties hurriedly clambered onto the roof to rip down the "paper."

Post newsroom morale shot up like Fourth of July fireworks. Our then-new editor, the inimitable Gil Spencer, supressed a smirk and told us all to "f--- off" and get back to work. We did so, happily . . . but later that day we also delivered a blow-up photo of the caper, mounted and signed by the newsroom staff, to the befuddled editor of the Rocky.

We all -- on both sides of the newspaper war -- had a good laugh.
And I submit to you, Newsosaur, that THAT is what they did in Chicago, too.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

Here is my final comment on this subject. Promise.

Depending on the cost of repairing the damage, sabotaging a competitor's billboard (as discussed immediately above) stands somewhere between vandalism and a harmless prank.

But even criminal mischief falls short, in my mind, of the offense of inducing a competing newspaper to pubish false information. That betrays the public trust that journalists are supposed to serve.

Further, phony stories reduce the already eroding credibility of the press. Why would any self-respecting journalist want to that?

10:17 AM  

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