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Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

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By: Dan Laxer – Montreal Times

“Sarah Palin: “Jesus fought for the death penalty until the day he died.”

Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story I got taken. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Because it just seemed so believable.

I read a news story about Sarah Palin. The headline read “Sarah Palin: ‘Jesus Fought For the Death Penalty Until the Day He Died’” I should have done a double-take. But it’s Sarah Palin, so I just rolled my eyes and said “What now?” and proceeded to read the story. Apparently, Palin was on Fox defending the death penalty. The story was so believable because of what we’re used to hearing from Palin. In fact, I could hear her voice as I read the words: “He was a tireless advocate of being tough on crime and making sure the criminals can’t be out there raping and murdering people.” That’s the kind of statement that one might believe actually came from Palin. “Jesus lobbied for capital punishment,” she allegedly said, “in order to protect the Christians and the Jews from the Palestinians and other Muslims who were killing people left and right.” Huh? The story then says that Fox and Friends’ host Elizabeth Hasselbeck set Palin straight, to which Palin allegedly replied “What do you mean Jesus was executed? I thought he was crucified.”

At this point I was doubled over with laughter. But for the wrong reasons. I couldn’t believe, but I could believe, what Palin had allegedly said. I tell you all of this, admittedly, as a bit of justification for what happened next, a kind of mea culpa. Before I knew what hit me, I’d posted the article on Facebook, along with the keyboard equivalent of derisive laughter. There were several responses, all expressing the same incredulous exasperation. Until a friend very gently pointed out “you know this is satire, right?”

I scrolled up to the top of the page. The story was from The Daily Currant. Curses! I’m usually the one who blows the fake news cover. But this time I got taken. Damn you, Daily Currant! I should have known, except that the story was not as farfetched as other fake news stories tend to be. I at the very least ought to have checked where the story came from. I remember the first time I saw The Daily Currant. I noticed what few others had: the spelling of currant, with an a, not an e, meaning a small raisin, rather than new or most recent.

Fake news, or news satire, is at least as old as Mark Twain who, as a young news reporter, had written and published several fake
stories, as had others before him. You can expect fake stories on April Fool’s Day. But if you know what the date is, then you’re primed.

A survey put out a few years ago showed that most young people get their news and information from The Daily Show and the Colbert
Report. And let’s not forget their grand-uncle, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. It’s all part of a tradition that includes British and American versions of a 1960s show called That Was the Week That Was. The British version even featured David Frost, who later went on to be a “real” broadcast journalist, famously interviewing US President Nixon. Here in Canada the legendary This Hour Has 7 Days was lampooned by This Hour Has 22 Minutes. There is always something, though, about a satirical news show that tips you off that it’s fake. Perhaps it’s the laughter of the live studio audience (chuckle, chuckle), or the clearly comic disposition of the anchors and reporters on the shows.

But fake news on the ‘net is a different story. The Internet has, to a certain degree, desensitized us to irony. We accept what we see online as gospel. When stories spread they can become detached from their original sources, and get mistaken for real news.

The Daily Currant is just a baby, and a precocious one at that. It’s a little less than two years old, but is perhaps the biggest news satire site next to The Onion, which is recognized as the foremost fake news site online.

The question is can I not be excused for mistaking the present story, about Sarah Palin’s fictional contentions about Jesus and capital punishment, as real? After all, didn’t Orson Welles’ live radio account of a Martian invasion cause widespread panic in 1938? Sarah Palin stumbled (actually it was more of a pratfall) onto the scene in the 2008 presidential election campaign, and quickly became the butt of jokes, precisely because of the things she said. Remember Tina Fey’s brilliant sendup of Palin. Her line “I can see Russia from my house” really isn’t a far cry from what Palin actually said: “They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.” While that may be factual, the question was about what “insight into Russian actions” she’d gleaned from her state’s proximity to it. And there were plenty of other gaffes along the way, whether it was her malapropisms, or her inability to name either newspapers she’d read, or supreme court decisions she agreed with. Is it safe to say that there have been enough Palinisms, that she’s become so much her own parody, that the fictional quotes attributed to her can actually ring true?

Nah. I’m just sore that I fell for it.

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