Welcome back to Can't Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.
Let's talk about how journalists know what they know—and to do that, we'll take a look at Omarosa.
Omarosa "Omarosa" Manigault-Newman rose to prominence in 2004 as a contestant on the first season of The Apprentice, where she showcased her inscrutable and often infuriating personality, which she parlayed into a career as a TV villain and a tabloid fixture. Later, when her former show's star finagled a job as president of the United States, he gave Omarosa a job in the White House, making her communications director for the White House's Office of Public Liaison. That came to an end on Tuesday, when it was announced that she was resigning, effective January.
But because this is Donald Trump's White House, her departure stirred up a load of controversy. Though she says she has decided to quit, it really doesn't seem like she's leaving entirely of her own volition. Various anonymous sources told mainstream news outlets say she was fired and then escorted out of the White House, or dragged out, or even that she triggered alarms in the process.
Omarosa, for what it's worth, says this stuff is essentially fake news. She claims that someone who hates her is just lying about her, that anyone who says otherwise is telling "interesting tales," and the proof is that there aren't any "pictures or videos" of her making a scene. So, what happened? And why does it matter?
To take the second question first, publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post have covered this story even though Omarosa was a relatively minor figure likely because these allegations of her messy firing represent another data point in a larger story about an administration marked by sloppiness and disorder.
But the question of what happened in this specific case is trickier. There aren't cameras documenting everything that goes on in the White House, so journalists have to rely on accounts from officials that are sometimes second-hand. Ideally you get multiple accounts that all agree with one another, making it more likely that the events they describe are accurate (blockbuster Times or Post stories about major topics like the Russia investigation can sometimes have dozens of sources). But ideally that sourcing can be supplemented by documents, photos, videos, or other hard evidence. That's why the audio recording of Richard Nixon talking about the Watergate break-in was such a big deal—it was a lot harder for him to deny everything after that.
So we don't know for sure what happened when Omarosa left the White House, though if multiple people are describing her departure the same way, they probably aren't all 100 percent wrong. But in today's crazy media environment, even things that seem like proof can turn out to be fake. Let's take a look at a few that came up this week:
Senator Chuck Schumer Paid Off Someone He Sexually Harassed
It seems as though someone wanted to sting journalists earlier this week by tricking them with forged court filings about a supposed sexual harassment claim against Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. It wasn't a very convincing fake: The document was suspiciously similar to a career-ending claim against Congressman John Conyers. The fake was so similar, in fact, that it contained references to a disciplinary policy that applies to members of the House, but not Senators.
According to the Daily Beast, reporters at CNN, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, and The New Yorker all said they'd received the fake documents, and apparently made no public mention of them.
After just a preview of the document on Monday, notorious alt-right shit-stirrer and sometimes conspiracy-monger Mike Cernovich, (who was the first person to acquire those documents about Conyers, which he gave to BuzzFeed) gloated online about what a big scoop he had on his hands, tweeting a Facebook screengrab (now deleted) of a a colleague claiming to have dirt about a "major" US senator and implying that "the full case file" would soon be forthcoming.
That colleague was Chuck C. Johnson, whom I have referred to in the past as a " longtime purveyor of journalism-flavored character assassinations (and failed assassination attempts)." On Monday, Johnson notified his Facebook followers that "Michael Cernovich & I are going to end the career of a U.S. Senator," so the stakes were clearly pretty high. Then Schumer's office reported that the documents were phony and that the authorities had been called, and Johnson and Cernovich both lost their enthusiasm for posting on social media about the story. As noted in the Daily Beast's coverage, forging such a document in Washington, DC is a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison.
Cernovich, to be fair, reportedly said that he learned a valuable lesson when it was all over: "This is a learning experience for me—not to hype something until it’s fully developed. I felt a great deal of embarrassment because I thought it was real," he told his Periscope viewers.
Doug Jones's Victory Relied on Voter Fraud
Last week, I voiced my skepticism about some types of online satire, directing my ire at The Beaverton, a Canadian site that ran a story last week about Palestinians recognizing Houston as the capital of Mexico—a story that tons of people apparently believed, or at least helped spread.
In a much more egregious example of this phenomenon from Thursday, according to some site called Ladies of Liberty that considers itself an outlet for "satire," Alabama Senator-elect Doug Jones stole the election from Roy Moore.
According to the Ladies of Liberty story, Jones received 5,327 votes in a town of 2,256 residents, and if that story were true, it would be a clear-cut case of electoral fraud. But since it's actually "satire," I guess the underlying truth that's being comedically skewered here is that Democrats are all, at bottom, ruthless criminals. I don't think the joke works all that well. Forgive me if I posit that the purpose of the article was probably never humor at all, but simply to lure the impulsive rage clicks of credulous conservatives.
At press time, the fake vote count from the story had been lifted from its original context, and was getting passed around on Facebook with no news link attached. One user who posted the story on Facebook wrote that he was feeling "about ready to lock and load!" And that's why I don't care for most satire these days.
Goodbye Redskins. Hello Redhawks
I hear you saying, "OK, well, what's good satire then, smart guy?"
This week a Native American advocacy group called Rising Hearts executed a glorious piece of satire involving the Washington Redskins, the bizarre football team representing the nation's capital, which somehow manages to carry on playing games and selling merchandise despite having a slur for Native Americans as its name. The fake story here was that the Redskins organization was sorry and was changing its name to the "Redhawks."
But this wasn't just some crummy fake news article. Instead, it was a work of art. The Redhawks hoax consisted of a plausible looking team website, a team Twitter, a fake Washington Post story, a fake Bleacher Report story, a fake ESPN story, and a fake Sports Illustrated story. All the fake stories were set against realistic page layouts unique to each of those publications, and written in (very roughly) the house editorial style of each. Rather than shoddy graphic design or grammar, the first giveaway that the stories were fake (according my editor who knows a lot more about sports than me) was that "it'd be super weird for [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder to do something reasonable."
I was reminded of the Yes Men, a comedy duo known for positioning themselves as the subjects of their criticism (by lying their way into TV newsrooms for instance), in order to make plausible-sounding claims in interviews and speeches, and thus forcing the offending organization to formally retract the false claims. The denials themselves become the final artistic flourish, because the stage is set for an organization to simply go along with some seemingly humane and popular idea, and they reveal their own monstrousness by not doing so.
The Redskins did not disappoint in that regard:
Very rarely, you wish that some fake news was real.
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