Apologies to Hanna, Wyoming

2013-08-04T00:00:00Z Apologies to Hanna, WyomingDARRELL EHRLICK Casper Star-Tribune Editor Casper Star-Tribune Online

On behalf of media (and, I use that term loosely) everywhere, I'd like to apologize to Hanna, Wyoming.

Not that the Casper Star-Tribune necessarily has anything to regret regarding the mining town in Carbon County. But, it's what happened -- or more accurately, didn't happen -- in Hanna that is quite frankly an embarrassment. 

On Monday, the phones started ringing off the hook at the Hanna Town Hall when people were seemingly outraged at an "article" on the Internet which proclaimed the government, as part of Obamacare, had started planting rice-grain sized chips in people, presumably to track them and possibly control them.

Though no one knew the person quoted in the story, and the town's mayor was fictitious, phone calls started pouring in from all corners of the nation. 

To make matters worse, a "Bible" radio show picked up the alleged news item because it seemed to play right into its religious paranoia. It didn't help that a crude graphic that accompanied the Internet posting referenced "666" and "the mark of the beast."

Obamacare, concerns about a big-brother government and Satanic overtones struck a chord in Wyoming and beyond. Who would have thought?

Kerosene meet fire.

The problem, of course, is that the article was a spoof article, written on a website that claims to be strictly satirical in nature. The National Report is a cut-rate version of "The Onion" and seems to want to be an in-print version of "The Daily Show," albeit an R-rated one. As Star-Tribune reporter Megan Cassidy called it in her report, "The publication ...reads like the lovechild of Weekly World News and The Onion."

Tabloid, satire and, by the website's own admittance, tea-party baiting.

If getting people riled in a fit of tea-party baiting was the objective, then mission accomplished. But at what point is baiting tea party members becoming passe?

The real challenge here is the website is just authentic enough to look credible. This spoof story played into conspiracy and people's worst fears about what the government might be doing. 

The National Report's little Wyoming joke stopped being funny when the publication couldn't produce satire clever enough so that readers could distinguish fact from exaggerated fiction. Truly, that's the hard thing about satire: It has to be so clever, so outlandish, so obvious that everyone understands it's bogus.

Not so with the National Report. Instead, it merely stopped a small Wyoming town from business. It's not clear how the operators of the National Report chose Hanna to target.

The other sad aspect of this article is that it plays on fears folks have about the federal government. Many of those fears are based on conspiracies, but articles like this almost certainly add to the distrust and misinformation. That certainly can't help smooth the roiled waters of public discourse when it comes to health care.

This spoof piece also demonstrates the power of the printed word and the trust folks still have in it. In many ways, this little joke -- even if it was found next to an article about the Duchess of Cambridge giving birth to four puppies -- erodes faith in journalism. Sadly, reporters sometimes get lumped together with comedians, or wanna-be humorists.

One of the primary jobs of journalists is to find the facts, verify them and present them in an independent, third-party way. The National Report -- and others like it -- trade on the trust and dependability of "mainstream" media, and then exploit that trust. It's only funny when both the website and the reader know it's a joke.

One of the toughest parts about the Hanna incident was how much credence to give it on the pages of the Star-Tribune. The editors here struggled with how much ink to give something that was clearly a hoax. And, if we did give it any press, would it only give more publicity to the fraud? And, would it be repeated enough to have people believe it?

“It is our opinion that if a person is too lazy to check for multiple references [or at least one other source] … and they spread misinformation around as fact, then they are to blame for their own stupidity, not us,” National Report Publisher Allen Montgomery told the Star-Tribune this week.

That sounds snazzy and sophisticated. But the truth is: Readers rely on the media to get it right. If not, then everyone would simply do their own reporting on every issue, making my job -- and everyone else's in the media -- obsolete. 

Montgomery's statement is tantamount to a robber blaming those he mugged for carrying cash.

To those who fell for the story, you've been duped by "pretend media."  And Hanna, Wyoming is not ground zero for Obamacare. There are no implanted chips.

End transmission.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(7) Comments

  1. reality8070
    Report Abuse
    reality8070 - January 01, 2014 11:37 pm
    In reply to whatwasthat,
    We all know that Wyoming is next to Montana. You are the one who doesn't know your geography. While Hanna Montana may be funny, Hanna Wyoming is closer to Colorado then Montana. As a resident of Montana, I know that most people don't know much about Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming. It would be easier (but ultimately dumber) for a satirical writer to write about some unknown place in Wyoming than in a place such as New York City. It also may have skipped your notice but this page is for a Wyoming group, hence the apology to Wyoming residents. Don't be a know it all jerk.
  2. griz
    Report Abuse
    griz - October 24, 2013 5:13 am
    The reason the article was taken seriously was that it is long been the practice of the left wing media to print outrageous lies (The Tucson shooting and Meg Lanker incident leaps to mind). It should be no surprise conservatives are a little sensitive.
  3. dhonig
    Report Abuse
    dhonig - August 22, 2013 6:20 am
    Seriously? So Johnathan Swift would owe the British public an apology if an insular and hysterical group of angry morons took seriously his Modest Proposal? That question was probably not clear enough, given the tenor of this "Apology." I suspect you've never heard of Johnathan Swift or "A Modest Proposal." I also suspect the rest of the Star Tribune is equally ignorant. That, or they're at this very moment frantically searching the internet for recipes for Irish children.
  4. Whatwasthat
    Report Abuse
    Whatwasthat - August 22, 2013 3:21 am
    Dear Sir,

    Upon reading your article several times, I have concluded that you deserve somewhat of an apology from me. The first half of this article about how easily Teahadists are duped by things they despertly want to believe, I think is quite well done.

    That said, the second half taking the National Report to task for Journalistic irresponsibility, not so much.

    I saw that my own comment needed some editing, so I did, and expanded. Read it here:

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/08/22/1232994/-Obamacare-and-the-Hanna-Wyoming-conspiracy

    Thank you and keep up the good work. All in fun.
  5. Whatwasthat
    Report Abuse
    Whatwasthat - August 22, 2013 1:17 am
    Dear Mr. Ehrlick,
    "It's not clear how the operators of the National Report chose Hanna to target."

    I might suggest that as a reporter on satirical articles you both add some more depth of field to your satire radar, and bone up on geography. Hanna Wyoming was selected because Wyoming is next to Montana, and there is no town named Hanna in Montana. Need I squeegee your satire windshield some more, or maybe it might just be a matter of extracting the Obamacare tracking device planted in the back of your neck while you were asleep.

    On a grammatical note, I don't think your dear clear headed readers would be as concerned about HOW the National Report chose Hanna, Wyoming (dart board, focus group, satire consultant, federal research grant, eeny meeny miney moe), as WHY they picked Hanna Wyoming. I might suggest hat it was picked because the near-funniness, pop-cultural aspect of the name Hanna, Wyoming might pass over the non satire grasping heads of serious writers like you (and your fine readers) to the point that the National Reports sophomoric editorial board collectively was snickering so hard at this vision of stories like you wrote about the non story about Obamacare , to the point that the board had Diet Fresca spewing from all their noses.
    I do agree with you that to pick on the upstanding citizens of Hanna, Wyoming, and their busy elected officials was very petty and not nice in a wipe that smirk off of your face, young man kind of way. But The National Report got a trifecta with this story. They made fun of a whole town, they duped many thousands of Obama haters into more false reasons to hate Obama, reasons and logic that for the most part will go unquestioned, and they got you to write an article that I have had a lot of fun picking apart.
    In conclusion, I might suggest to your publisher that he buy you a new copy of Brown's Little Book of Grammar, and send some of your copy editors back to middle school.
  6. conservation know it all
    Report Abuse
    conservation know it all - August 20, 2013 2:07 pm
    It would surprise me if something like this was true, but it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility to happen in the future. If Obama could make this happen without significant outrage he most likely would pursue it since he thinks it is the role of the government to control it's citizens.
  7. DLucia
    Report Abuse
    DLucia - August 05, 2013 10:54 am
    The tone of this editorial is disappointing, and misses the point. A satirical article was written, and gullible zealots took it as truth. There was an opportunity here to encourage readers to use critical thinking, but instead the editor criticizes the publication and sympathizes with those whose political beliefs blind them.
    The problem was not that this obviously tongue-in-cheek publication "couldn't produce satire clever enough so that readers could distinguish fact from exaggerated fiction." To the contrary, the majority of readers distinguished fact from fiction quite easily.
    The only people who believed this absurd and humorous story are those same people who swallow up every tidbit of misinformation spread through chain emails and talk radio - those folks who believe everything negative that is written or spoken about President Obama, Democrats, and liberals, without fact-checking or questioning. I wish the National Report the best in its future endeavors. That there are people who believe this implanted chips story is almost as funny as the initial story itself.
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