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There is a minor controversy bouncing around right now on the internet, and I’d like to do what I can to set the story straight. The controversy involves two incidents:
The day after the U.S. presidential election, Fox News reporter Carl Cameron gave an interview with Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly. During the interview, Cameron said that McCain’s advisors had told him about their unhappiness with Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential running mate. Citing anonymous sources within the McCain campaign, Cameron recited a litany of complaints, including their claim that Palin was so ignorant she didn’t know Africa was a continent.
A blogger who calls himself “Martin Eisenstadt” stated a few days ago that he was the anonymous source for Cameron’s story. Earlier today, however, the New York Times reported that “Martin Eisenstadt doesn’t exist. His blog does, but it’s a put-on. The think tank where he is a senior fellow — the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy — is just a Web site. The TV clips of him on YouTube are fakes. And the claim of credit for the Africa anecdote is just the latest ruse by Eisenstadt, who turns out to be a very elaborate hoax that has been going on for months.”
Dumber than Plumber
As the New York Times noted near the bottom of its story exposing Martin Eisenstadt, we were among the first people to label Eisenstadt a hoax several months ago, in our SourceWatch article about him. The main credit for exposing the hoax, however, properly belongs to blogger William K. Wolfum, who became incensed after discovering that he had been duped in one of Eisenstadt’s earlier ruses and doggedly set about investigating and dissecting the network of online pseudonyms and websites through which Eisenstadt created his false identity. It was Wolfum who first called the hoax to our attention, for which we are grateful.
Last month, I exposed one of Eisenstadt’s previous hoaxes, in which he attempted to promote a smear aimed at Samuel Joe Wurzelbacher (“Joe the plumber”), whose verbal confrontation with Barack Obama had become the centerpiece of the McCain campaign’s effort to paint Obama as a socialist who wants to raise everyone’s taxes. Eisenstadt falsely claimed that Wurzelbacher had hidden connections to both the McCain campaign and to “Charles Keating of the Keating 5 scandal.” Some liberal bloggers actually fell for this fabrication and repeated it for a day or two before realizing they had been snookered. In exposing the hoax, I stated then that, “In all likelihood, ‘Martin Eisenstadt’ is some kind of leftist prankster who sees his hoax as a satire.”
The New York Times story revealed that the Eisenstadt hoax is the work of two people, filmmakers Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin. After the Times story appeared, they have given interviews to Variety magazine, MediaBistro.com and BBC, in which they confirmed that their intent was social satire and discussed the details of their fabrication. Mirvish explained that Carl Cameron’s story about Sarah Palin and Africa “was kind of put out there a few days after the election. … We had established this … hoax character of Martin Eisenstadt as a McCain advisor, specifically on foreign policy issues. Well, it was like a giant volleyball that had been just tossed up for us to play. So we just said, well okay, we’ll take credit for it. Yeah, sure, we were the ones who told Fox News that Sarah didn’t know where Africa was.”
“Can I just clarify?” the interviewer asked. “So, your hoax blogger, Martin Eisenstadt and this supposed McCain policy advisor, he wasn’t responsible for this story. As in, the story exists, it may well be entirely genuine.”
“Exactly,” Mirvish replied. “Yes. It’s completely absurd, but it may actually be true.”
The Fake Fake
Having watched the Eisenstadt hoax unfold, I have to say that I think the hoaxsters have been profoundly unethical. I don’t lack a sense of humor, and I see the point that they are trying to make about the media’s willingness to report (and the public’s willingness to believe) unverified falsehoods. In the past, there have been a few satirical hoaxes that I actually found genuinely entertaining. American prankster Joey Skaggs, for example, has perpetrated a number of clever pranks on the media. In one memorable prank, he got ABC to run with a story on an a supposed dog brothel that he advertised as a “cathouse for dogs.” In another, conducted during the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, Skaggs got a number of reporters to bite when he posed as a computer scientist with a program that could analyze video footage of accused criminals and determine whether they were guilty.
Critical differences, however, distinguish Skaggs and his light-hearted spoofs from the hoax perpetrated by Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin. In the end, Skaggs has made sure to let everyone in on his jokes. This has not been the case with the Eisenstadt hoax. It continues even now on its website, even after it has been exposed in the pages of the New York Times. The Eisenstadt hoax has been ongoing now for more than six months and has injected a significant amount of noise and confusion into American political discourse — confusion that is obvious in the number of people who still misunderstood basic facts about the hoax, even after it has been repeatedly exposed.
Some people — conservative bloggers in particular — have seemed especially quick to jump on the hoax as proof that Sarah Palin is an unfairly maligned victim, writing opinion pieces complaining about “Journalistic Recklessness.” A few, more traditional news outlets, have reached similar mistaken conclusions. The Chicago Tribune’s Frank James, for example, responded to the the Times story by writing that “Sarah Palin deserves an apology. To his credit, James later retracted his statement, writing that “Cameron … and Fox apparently deserve an apology from me for what I wrote earlier.”
Even some reviewers at NewsTrust, a website devoted to evaluating the quality of news stories, seem to have gotten confused. NewsTrust reviewer Michael Bugeja is a director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University of Science and Technology who says he has “researched media hoaxes for 20 years.” He responded to the New York Times exposé of the Eisenstadt hoax by writing, “The Palin/Africa tidbit and its symbolism about President-Elect Obama’s heritage is a prime example of what the online society will believe in a platform that will affirm any belief, however ridiculous.”
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is reported to have coined the concept of a “fake fake” — an authentic object that has been made to look as though it is in fact non-genuine. The Eisenstadt hoax has actually turned Carl Cameron’s story about Sarah Palin into a real-world “fake fake.” In the process, it has created a great deal of empty, pointless noise and confusion.
It may well be true, as the Columbia Journalism Review observed recently, that “the press still seems ridiculously preoccupied with Palin (and ridiculously not preoccupied with vice-president-elect Biden). … Palin’s current news value is largely based on her entertainment value” rather than because of “anything that’s very politically relevant.” Carl Cameron’s report about her alleged problem with Africa is certainly an example of this — a story that barely matters with regard to any important issue of the day. However, there is still something disturbing at seeing how easily the Eisenstadt hoax has succeeded in attaching itself to the story and unfairly calling its accuracy into question.
For anyone who has not yet figured this out yet, here’s the story in a nutshell:
The hoax in this case is Eisenstadt’s claim that he was the source for Carl Cameron’s report on Fox News. Cameron never spoke to Eisenstadt and did not use Eisenstadt as the basis for his reporting.
Got it? If you’re still confused, read the above paragraph a second time, or a third time if you need it. If you still have any doubts, read the New York Times story carefully. Its wording is a little less clear than it ought to be, but it also makes the point I just emphasized. Carl Cameron is standing by his story, and apparently Sarah Palin really was confused about Africa.
SHELDON RAMPTON is a reseracher at the Center for Media and Democracy (where this essay originally appeared) and co-author of two books about the war: Iraq: Weapons of Mass Deception and The Best War Ever.