Thursday, November 13, 2008

Times Hoax

A hoax edition of the New York Times appeared on the streets of New York yesterday, its lead story announcing "Iraq War Ends." Produced by a group of political pranksters called the Yes Men, according to Reuters, the edition sparked thoughts about a better future and the place of journalism in our politics and culture.

Reuters reported that 1.2 million copies of the fake edition, which took six months to produce, were handed out in New York and Los Angeles. The Reuters report included a statement sent from the Website of the fake edition:
"We've got to make sure Obama and all the other Democrats do what we elected them to do," Bertha Suttner, identified as one of the newspaper's writers, said in the statement. "After eight, or maybe twenty-eight years of hell, we need to start imagining heaven."

The 14-page issue is packed with "stories" that I'd like to see come true, from the construction of more bike paths to announcements of free public universities to efforts to build a "sane economy."

For me, one of the interesting questions in the whole episode is why it took the form of an edition of the Times. The pranksters could have printed up their own press release announcing the same thing, but obviously that would not have had the same impact. So why does the Times have the impact that it has?

Answers will vary. Some will tell you that the Times enjoys its authority because it is a uniquely credible source of information. Others will say that the paper is simply a megaphone for power.

I'm too skeptical to accept the first explanation and too disturbed by the Times' coverage of the run up to the Iraq war to categorically dismiss the second.

Instead, thinking back to the writings of the historian Edward Thompson on law and the courts in eighteenth century England, I am inclined to think of journalism as contested terrain: something worth fighting over. Its virtues are not innate but its purposes and actions are not automatically determined by whoever holds power at the moment. Journalism has to be thought about and fought about, year in and year out, if it is ever to live up to its best possibilities.

Surely one of mainstream journalism's enduring traits is its tendency to report the world according to the common sense of its time. For the last eight years and more, that common sense has been skewed far to the right.

The hoax edition of the Times distributed yesterday helped us imagine a tomorrow that looks different from today. With luck and hard work, we might even see that reflected someday in the real Times.

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