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.