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Jewish World Review
April 4, 2008
/ 28 Adar II 5768
April is cruel, that's no joke
Some of our editors and news producers, adrift in the Sea of Red Ink, seem to think they've found at last the formula for permanent success: "Let's put a lot of fake stories in the paper and on the air."
This is just what newspapers need to reassure readers who don't believe much of what they read, anyway. Some newspapers and television networks have turned to junior-high school journalists for inspiration: the April Fool's joke. Celebrities are yukking it up, too. Hillary Clinton challenged Barack Obama this week to settle the Pennsylvania primary with a "bowl-off," winner take all. But then she said she was only kidding. Ted Turner told a television interviewer that global warming will turn us all into cannibals. (I think he was April Fooling, but Cap'n Ted plays the fool most of the time.)
The April Fool's joke is more popular abroad, particularly in Britain and Australia. But it's spreading here. The most embarrassing joke on newspaper readers this year was in The Washington Post. A "friend" of Edward M. Gabriel, a business consultant and the former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, bought a $322 "In Memoriam" advertisement in The Post to express his "sadness" at the demise of Mr. Gabriel. "Though I no longer have you as my partner, this day will always be OUR anniversary," wrote Peter Segall, a lawyer and public-relations flack. "I could never quit you."
Mr. Gabriel spent April 1 taking calls from friends and associates, seeking reassurance that he was not, after all, permanently dead. Mr. Segall apologized for what he called an immature mistake by a mature man (an exaggeration, for sure), and Mr. Gabriel says they're still friends, sort of. Some people figure this is what you expect from lawyers and consultants, and they deserve the embarrassment simply because of who they are. That seems harsh, but the real offense is against the readers who still expect that what they read in the newspaper is more or less true.
The London Daily Telegraph, which affects to have the cachet of the New York Times ("All the News That's Fit to Print"), published a story that a colony of penguins had flown thousands of miles from Antarctica to bask in the sun in a South American rain forest, and illustrated the story with BBC footage of a flight of penguins. (Ha, ha.) The London daily Independent reported that a famously dirty-mouthed Sydney chef had opened a restaurant banning profanity after Australian authorities denied on grounds of "decency" his application to open a new restaurant. (Tee, hee.) Google Australia announced that it would introduce a new feature "enabling you to search for content on the Internet before it is created," enabling customers to get "tomorrow's news today," including closing stock quotations and sports results. Giggle, giggle.
Such wit and humor surely deserves a museum, and there is one. The Museum of Hoaxes exists only on the Internet, and Alex Boese (who describes himself as the "hoaxpert") says he has traced April tomfoolery to the late Middle Ages. One of his Top Ten toppers dates from 1957, when the BBC program "Panorama" reported that Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop due to a mild winter and illustrated it with film footage of Swiss peasants pulling spaghetti from trees. Saddam Hussein's lunatic son Uday once ordered his newspaper to report that President Clinton had lifted finally sanctions against Iraq and soon there would be plenty to eat. An editor to emulate, that Uday.
Australian police in Queensland are considering whether to file charges against a woman who called medics this year to say that her baby had fallen off its bed and was not breathing. When two ambulances with paramedics arrived to help the woman met them at the door with a thigh-slapper: "April Fool!"
Not so long ago the penalty for slipping a fake story into the newspaper, on April 1 or any other day, was swift, unforgiving and with extreme prejudice. The Internet, with its insatiable appetite for "content," whether true or not, is changing that. Any lie can look forward to a long life, bouncing across the ether to break hearts and ruin reputations. Reader, beware.
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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.
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