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Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S. Excerpt from Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S.

by Alex Boese

Reality Rule 10.1
Information is only as good as its source. 

Rewrite Man, n.: A newspaper employee responsible for spicing up stories with entertaining, often fictitious, details. This was an actual position in the early twentieth century. Nowadays reporters are expected to assume the responsibilities of the rewrite man.

Rogue Reporters

Most people assume newspaper articles are accurate and true. But thanks to the existence of rogue reporters, it’s always possible that the news you’re reading -- no matter how seemingly legitimate, or how prestigious the paper -- has been invented out of thin air.

The First Rogue
Once upon a time, news editors encouraged their reporters to be slightly rogueish. Anything to spice up the news. Throughout the nineteenth century newspapers were filled with hoaxes. It wasn’t until 1924 when New York Herald Tribune reporter Sanford Jarrell concocted a charming tale about a floating speak-easy anchored in international waters just outside of New York harbor -- causing harbor police to embark on a frantic search for the phantom “sin ship” -- that a reporter got fired for lying. Unfortunately for Jarrell, he perpetrated his hoax just as the news industry was developing a bad case of wanting to appear that it had ethics. (Though it also wanted plenty of sensational stories, creating -- many would argue -- an inevitable tension.) Since then the noisy firing of rogue reporters has been a recurring feature in the world of journalism.

A Rogue in Red China
In 1972 Bob Patterson filed a series of ground-breaking reports for the San Francisco Examiner about his secret odyssey through Red China. These reports were made all the more remarkable when it was learned Patterson had never left Hong Kong.

Jimmy’s World
In 1981 Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her Washington Post articles about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy, but had to return the Pulitzer when her editors figured out that Jimmy didn’t exist. Her argument that someone like Jimmy could exist given the drug problem in Washington DC didn’t win her much sympathy, especially from the police who had been frantically searching for the boy. She later sold the story rights to her escapade for a cool $1.5 million.

Glass Works
Stephen Glass was a young writer on the fast-track for success at the New Republic. During the late 1990s he always seemed to get the scoops. His most celebrated article, “Hack Heaven,” told the story of a fifteen-year-old hacker who broke into the computer systems of Jukt Micronics and then extorted money (and a job, a Miata, a trip to Disney World, and a lifetime subscription to Playboy) from the software corporation. The article captured the topsy-turvy culture of the Dot-Com boom. Too bad Jukt Micronics only existed in Glass’s imagination. The New Republic fired him when they found out, but he later cashed in his notoriety for a six-figure book deal.

Gray Lady Down
Reporter Jayson Blair claimed to be traveling the country, doing research and conducting interviews. In reality, he spent most of his time in a New York City Starbucks sipping coffee and lifting details from other journalists’ work. For this reason, his employers showed him the door in 2003. What made this shocking was that he was employed by the New York Times, the so-called Gray Lady of journalism and the most respected paper in the United States. This proved, to any one who still doubted it, that rogues could pop up anywhere. Blair copied the strategy of Stephen Glass and softened the pain of his dismissal with a book deal.

Jayson Blair, 1. n.: A former reporter for the New York Times. 2. v.: To falsify or add phony details to a document, as in “I Jayson Blaired my resume.” (Usage seen on, May 14, 2003.)

Rogue War Reporters
When coalition troops rolled into Iraq in spring 2003, Swaziland state radio sent journalist Phesheya Dube to Baghdad to cover the fighting. Day after day listeners heard live reports from the intrepid reporter -- much to the alarm of his colleagues at home, who frequently urged Dube to stay out of harm’s way. Dube, however, seemed totally unconcerned about his safety. The reason why became apparent when someone spotted him strolling around Mbabane, the Swaziland capital. Dube, in fact, had never gone to Baghdad. As one Member of the Swaziland Parliament put it, he had been “broadcasting out of a broom closet” in Mbabane, passing wire reports on as his own eyewitness accounts.

Dube represents a distinct subclass of rogue reporters -- the rogue war reporter. These journalists creatively combine the glory of being on the frontlines with the safety of remaining at home.

Some rogue war reporters travel to the war region, but avoid the hazards of actual combat by filming reenactments of events. For instance, at the start of the second Iraq War, Sky News reporter James Forlong broadcast footage of a cruise missile firing from the HMS Splendid -- neglecting to tell viewers that the scene was staged for his benefit and no missile was actually fired. Forlong resigned, whereas Dube was never reprimanded (and probably still works at Swaziland State Radio today).

Constructed Quotation, n.: A quotation attributed to an interviewee that was in reality written by a reporter after the interview. Usually the interviewee approves the phony quotation. It’s a case of “you should have said this, so why don’t we pretend you did.”

Keeper, n.: A story a journalist holds on to for publication at a more opportune date. This strategy commonly involves sitting on a story about an embarrassing incident in a politician’s past until the night before the election, when it will have maximum impact.

Time Shifting, v.: Writing in the past tense about an event that hasn’t yet happened. Usually done to make printing deadlines for short-lead publications. The danger is that the story might still predate the event. This happened in 2005 when the Boston Globe described in great detail the slaughter of baby seals by hunters off the coast of Newfoundland. However, the delayed hunt hadn’t yet taken place.

Predetermined Storyline, n.: The plot outline reporters often draft before an event. This allows the reporter to plug details into the “predetermined storyline” once the event has happened and quickly file her report. The storyline’s accuracy is of secondary importance.

Reality Rule 10.2
Reporters sometimes forget that information is only as good as its source.

Rogue Sources

Sometimes what you read in the paper or see on the nightly news isn’t true, but not because a reporter deliberately lied. Instead, a reporter relied on a questionable source and got taken in by a hoax -- in other words, the journalist didn’t do his homework. The history of journalism is full of spectacular goofs.

Monte Christo Pistols
In 1856 the London Times sparked a transatlantic row by publishing -- as proof of the barbaric nature of American society -- a letter describing a series of duels fought with Monte Christo pistols on a Georgia train while passengers ignored the bloodshed. The New York Times angrily denied that such duels had ever occurred, and the London Times realized it had been duped when it learned that “Monte Christo pistols” was Southern slang for bottles of champagne.

The Hitler Diaries
In 1983 Der Stern thought it had scored a journalistic coup when it obtained the secret diaries of Adolf Hitler, supposedly hidden in East Germany since the end of World War II. The German magazine wanted so badly for the diaries to be real that it ignored obvious evidence to the contrary, such as Hitler’s well known dislike of keeping personal records. Der Stern only admitted the diaries weren’t real after it became clear that they were written on paper manufactured well after the war’s end, and that their content had been lifted from an edition of Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations. All told, the debacle cost the magazine upward of $24 million.

Whatever Happened to Buckwheat?
In 1990 the news show 20/20 aired an interview with William Thomas, the actor who played Buckwheat in the Our Gang comedies of the 1930s and '40s. 20/20 claimed Thomas now lived in Tempe, Arizona and worked as a grocery bagger. But the man 20/20 interviewed was an impostor named Bill English who had been claiming to be Buckwheat for thirty years. 20/20 sheepishly admitted its mistake the week after the segment aired. In the ensuing scandal, a producer was fired, and the son of the real William Thomas (who had worked as a film technician before dying in 1980 at the age of forty nine) sued the network for negligence.

The Almost Death of a President
In 1992 CNN almost reported that the first President Bush had died, after it received a phone call from a man claiming to be the president's heart specialist on board Air Force One. Anchorman Don Harrison interrupted the regularly scheduled broadcast to deliver the news, but, just in the nick of time, someone at CNN realized it was a hoax and the producer yelled “Stop! Stop!”. Viewers could hear shouting, but didn’t know what it was all about. The caller turned out to be mentally unstable.

The Diana Tapes
In 1996 the Sun claimed to have a videotape of Princess Diana frolicking in her underwear with cavalry officer James Hewitt. Hot stuff. But the tape was a phony shot by an amateur filmmaker in a London suburb using two Diana lookalikes and one fake Hewitt. The total cost of making the film was $1300. The filmmaker reportedly sold the tape to the Sun for six figures.

The Marilyn-JFK Letters
In 1997 ABC prepared a $2 million three-part documentary about the relationship between JFK and Marilyn Monroe, alleging not only that the two had engaged in a long-time affair, but that JFK had intended to establish a trustfund for Monroe’s mother in order to buy the actress’s silence. ABC’s proof for these spectacular claims? JFK’s love letters. But just in time to scuttle the series, ABC discovered the letters had been produced on a typewriter that wasn’t manufactured until after Kennedy’s death. Another problem was that the addresses on the letters contained zip codes, though zip codes only came into use in 1963, again after JFK’s death.

In 2004 Dan Rather reported on 60 Minutes that CBS had obtained documents proving President Bush had disobeyed orders while serving in the National Guard and had then used his family’s influence to cover up his poor service record. The documents allegedly came from the files of Col. Killian, Bush’s commanding officer in the Guard. Almost immediately, amateur sleuths pointed out on the internet that the documents looked an awful lot like they had been created on a computer using Microsoft Word -- a sure sign of forgery since Microsoft Word didn’t exist when Bush served in the Guard. CBS didn't pay much attention to these sleuths, but when the network realized its source for the documents, Bill Burkett, had lied about how he obtained them, it decided it could no longer vouch for their authenticity. Rather apologized for airing the story.

Fact Gap, n.: The disparity between what the public believes to be the facts and what actually are the facts. Example: a June 2003 poll revealed that half the public believed Iraqis to have been among the nineteen hijackers on September 11. In reality, no Iraqis were among the hijackers. Analysts attributed this “fact gap” to misleading news reports.

Copyright © 2006 Alex Boese