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.
"I feel empathy for [the reporters] but everyone has to realize you can't prevent this kind of thing," said Mike Bonanno, whose real name seems to be Igor Vamos. He is one of the Yes Men, the group that advised the GE tax pranksters. "If people are presenting themselves as someone else and doing a good job of it, there is no way journalists can prevent this kind of stuff."
Vamos , who teaches art and video making at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, does not believe the GE deception — or other fake news he's helped engineer over more than a decade — is antithetical to the media's truth-telling mission.
He praises a recent New York Times story for exposing the fact that GE paid no corporate taxes in 2010, despite $14.2 billion in worldwide profits. But he said the Yes Men and US Uncut, the liberal activist group that actually carried off the fakery, were determined to extend the story's impact in hope of changing "these crazy laws that let companies park profits offshore and keep billions of dollars that come right out of our pockets."
Deceptive news in the modern era may have arrived with a prankster named Alan Abel, who got television and newspapers to report in the early 1960s on his "Society for Indecency to Naked Animals."
Abel persuaded a then little-known performer, Buck Henry, to portray the president of the society, which insisted that farm animals be shrouded in diapers to cover their private parts. It took nearly five years, and multiple credulous news stories, before Time magazine finally exposed the fraud.
Over the next half-century, Abel would stage dozens of other deceptions — including a wedding for Gen. Idi Amin at New York's Plaza Hotel and an ersatz lottery victory, which suckered the New York Post and multiple TV stations. (Front-page Post headline: "$35M and She's Single.") Abel doesn't claim much "redeeming value" for his pranks, though he did feel the lottery sucked too much money out of people who couldn't afford it.
He helped inspire the handful of young guns who about a decade ago became the Yes Men. The group, much more ardently political than Abel, began in 2000 with repeated impersonations of World Trade Organization officials, in a protest against the impacts of trade globalization.
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.
So editors will not let up on speed. But they say they won't tolerate mistakes, either. "If we feel that things are moving so fast we can't be sure of something," Kent said, "then the answer for us is to slow down."
Andrew Boyd helped lay the plan for US Uncut and manned the phones this week, in the persona of GE spokesman Samuel Winnacker. One TV outlet put the fake spokesman on a newsroom speaker phone and caught him when he could not name the date of shareholder meeting. (Boyd guessed … and missed by about a week.) "I think at that point, someone in that newsroom gave me the thumbs down," he said.
But AP didn't check. And many others relied on the venerable wire service's report.
While the made-up news seems certain to be with us for the long run, the tricksters don't fit a single profile. Some do it for money, sensationally exemplified by Clifford Irving's Howard Hughes "autobiography" or the small-time Stuttgart art dealer and forger who in 1983 briefly duped several major publications with his release of "the Hitler diaries." In 2009, Richard Heene, the Colorado father, brought us Balloon Boy in hopes of fulfilling his reality TV dreams.
Narcissists and fantasy peddlers have also numbered among the news fabricators. That group included the convicted con man who foisted off apparently fake documents that supposedly told the true tale of a brutal assault on Tupac Shakur. A Los Angeles Times reporter fell for it and the paper had to correct the story.
Then there are the hoaxers who are in it mostly for the kicks. Abel, now in his 80s, patched together a living by turning his trickery into lectures, songs and several books. He still tours college campuses with his daughter and their documentary about his life, "Abel Raises Cain."
Reached at his home in Connecticut this week, Abel remained the determined imp. "We don't laugh enough," he said. "We don't play enough."
So on Friday, three days before tax day, he planned to get to the central post office in New York City — to pamphlet, in all apparent earnestness, for the United States to convert to the "Fat Tax." He would make Americans pay by their weight, not income. (At least that's what he said he'd be doing.)
Whether reporters would fall for it or not remained to be seen. But Abel knew one thing: "We will," he said, "create a little bit of a rumpus."