The calendar says Monday is April first, but lately it seems that foolishness occurs year-round.
As one who devoted much of his life to the family business of pranking people, I’m often asked if folks are more difficult to trick today than six decades ago when my dad, Allen Funt, invented “Candid Camera.” After all, we’re now so dialed in and media savvy, certainly we’re less susceptible to jokes—practical or otherwise.
Fact is, people are more easily tricked than ever.
Multi-tasking has a lot to do with it; hardly any moments remain when we focus our complete attention on just one thing. We’re easily distracted, and any magician will tell you that distraction is the key to fooling people. Also, technology has made such incredible leaps that almost anything seems possible, and thus believable.
But the perfect storm for chicanery is in media. Ease of access via the Internet, coupled with speedy distribution that leaves fact-checkers in the dust, is creating a robust market for fake news—if you like that sort of thing. How difficult can it be to fool Americans at a time when an alarming percentage of them tell pollsters they use Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” as a primary source for news?
Among the latest gems: a report that Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel winner in economics, had filed for bankruptcy. The item was written by a satirical website called The Daily Currant and then transmitted as real news by the financial blog Prudent Investor via Boston.com (owned by The Times) and picked up by the conservative site Breitbart.com.
The Currant struck a few weeks earlier with a bogus story that Sarah Palin was joining the Middle Eastern news service Al Jazeera. The Washington Post’s Suzi Parker reported it as fact, prompting Palin to tweet, “Hey @washingtonpost, I’m having coffee with Elvis this week.”
This might be fun, except for what it says about our politics and our news. We increasingly rely on the Internet to reinforce our beliefs, so we naturally grab at things that appear to do that. We’re so enamored of click-and-share gossip that we pass things along without much question. Even the largest media outlets seem eager to link to the juiciest items that are “trending.”
Media were so hungry for tidbits about Pope Francis that not one but several phony Twitter accounts were cited at various times as being the new pope’s true messages, until the Vatican cleared things up.
The public may be as gullible as ever, but it’s also media professionals who are falling for the phony news stories. That’s nothing new—it’s just that hoaxsters now have better tools.
Back in the early 80’s I wrote an annual April Fools column in which I sought to fool media with fake news about media. One year, shortly after singer Michael Jackson accidentally burned some of his hair during a pyrotechnic stunt, I wrote that Paramount was making a movie about it called “Tingle,” and that MTV had paid millions for the video, while USA Network was preparing a “Tingle” workout show and Parker Bros. was selling a “Tingle” board game. I even said Allstate was handling fire insurance for the entire “Tingle” enterprise.
Richard Hack, a writer for the trade publication Hollywood Reporter, went on national TV to break the “news.” To his discredit, he didn’t even name his source for the story, claiming the reporting to be his own.
I finally gave up writing April Fools columns after concluding that media types were so easily gulled it just wasn’t fun to mess with them.
Now websites like The Daily Currant and The Onion do this sort of thing as a business. The public is occasionally tricked, but it’s media that increasingly play the fools.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. His new book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” will be published in May.