Millard Fillmore’s bathtub came out of a hoax story written in 1917 by one of America’s greatest cynics and writers, H. L. Mencken. Mencken lived to regret that he ever wrote the piece, after it was cited as fact by encyclopedias and critics of Fillmore’s presidency.
Mencken’s story holds a moral, a lesson for all critics of the American scene, and especially anyone who comments on political figures: Verify everything.
Ernest Hemingway put it best, if crudely: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”*
If a writer or reporter doesn’t have one of those devices built-in, he is likely to find himself up to his chin in it after having failed to detect it in time to avoid the plunge.
Rush Limbaugh is in it up to his chin right now, after following Michael Ledeen off the dock.
Faithful readers here — all dozen of ‘em — may remember last January when we spotlighted a hoax at a blog called Jumping in Pools; the author claimed President Obama had ordered members our armed forces to take an oath of allegiance to Obama in place of their regular oath to the nation.
Orson Welles was on to something with his “War of the Worlds” broadcast. In fact, after that first night of panic, the same script was used on other occasions, and people still got suckered in. (Listen to the RadioLab feature on this phenomenon — it’s wonderful.)
It’s almost as if people were going around with signs on their backs that say “Lie to me, baby!” Only, the people put the signs on their shirts and blouses themselves.
For whatever ill-thought, malicious reason, somebody invented an absolutely unbelievable hoax that President Obama asked the Pentagon to have military people swear allegiance to him, instead of the nation. Jumping in Pools posted it.
Jumping in Pools also listed it as satire, in tags.
But the hoax sucked in the gullible all over the web.
Limbaugh? Ledeen? Y’all would do well to read this blog, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub. You might have recognized the name of the blog, Jumping in Pools, that carried that phantasmagorical story about Barack Obama’s student essay, finally being released in part to Time Magazine’s Joe Klein.
Yahoo!’s Buzz Up explained the story, with links you ought to check out:
It must have seemed so perfect. An obscure blogger unearths some pages of President Obama’s college thesis. The report supposedly comes from big-time journalist Joe Klein of Time magazine. And the thesis has some real gems: like Obama’s disdain for the Constitution.
The whole thing was nothing more than a satirical post on a humor blog. But Rush Limbaugh, who quoted from the supposed thesis on his radio show, sure wasn’t laughing. Here’s how it went down.
An unknown blogger picked up on a made-up post meant as a joke, which claimed that Joe Klein had gotten his hands on 10 pages of student Obama’s college thesis. Rush Limbaugh jumped on it, which immediately sparked Web searches on “obama thesis.”
Supposedly titled “Aristocracy Revisited,” the excerpt revealed the president had “doubts” about the “so-called founders.” Juicy. Except not true. Limbaugh discovered halfway through his show that he’d been had, but defended himself by saying basically the thesis felt true. Listen in to Rush’s mea sorta culpa.
Joe Klein finally jumped in, and called the report “nonsense” on his Swampland blog, and the blogger who thought the hoax was real also apologized.
Michael Ledeen writing at Pajamas Media was that “blogger who thought the hoax was real.”
Ledeen had the good grace to apologize (and in doing so reveal that he really should have been much more en garde):
The hoax/satire was written in August, so it’s not connected to any current event. I cam across it on Twitter, read the blog, found it interesting, and posted on it. I failed to notice that one of the tags was “satire.”
So he got me, and lots of others. It worked because it’s plausible. I’ve done satirical pieces myself, and I know how they can take off. I once wrote one that said that Bill Casey did not die, and was hiding in a bunker under the St Andrews golf course from which he was running Mikhail Gorbachev. I thought it was obviously satirical, but it went like wildfire all over the world. And that was in the days before the Internet.
So I should have picked up some hint, but I didn’t. Shame on me.
But Limbaugh? He railed on for more than half an hour on the evils of Obama revealed in the completely fictional essay; and then when he was alerted to the fact that it was a hoax, he didn’t apologize. He said he was suckered in because the hoax was plausible, and Obama might have done such a thing.
“I know Obama thinks it,” Limbaugh said, purporting to channel the guy he despises only too openly.
I’m trying to suppress it, but Limbaugh’s actions remind me mightily of an old Cheech and Chong routine. One wonders what Obama’s more rabid critics would not grant credence to.
Wall of Shame
What would Hemingway have reported?
- Jonathan Last’s article for the Templeton Foundation’s In Character Journal wonders about how we choose what to believe, and whom. The Dallas Morning News carried the article in the “Points” section this morning, but it’s not up on their website; look at the article at the Templeton Foundation site.
* I’m convinced he said it. I’m relying here on Elizabeth Dewberry’s contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, “Hemingway’s Journalism and the Realist Dilemma,” on page 25. She cites to an interview, but I’ve misplaced the rest of that note for the moment, and for some odd reason the page with the citation isn’t included on Google Books (the pain of internet research, to get to the information you need out of the haystack, and find that particular needle has been intentionally removed). Read Dewberry, though, for a much longer and informative discussion about hoaxes and fakery in journalism, which is the problem discussed in this post.
Don’t let your friends be bamboozled, pass the word: