Cracker by Damian Christie


A Whale of a Tale

I have mixed feelings about the efforts of The Jono Project (formerly Jono's New Show) to dupe various media into running fictional stories, various media which as of this week include TVNZ's Breakfast, which ran an interview with a man purporting to be heading a pro-whaling lobby group.

The first point: Tricking media is like shooting kittens in a barrel.

It's not a question of a lack of fact checking, though that too is certainly rife in all areas of the media. Time constraints, years of thinning out of staff, not to mention good old human error and laziness contribute to mistakes. And then there's a tendancy to take people at their word; or at least believing that they believe the point they are making. I interview a number of people each week for radio, television and print, short of having them turn up with three forms of ID and sworn affadavits, there is a certain amount of assuming they are who they say they are, and they believe what they say.

This of course is not to say I don't challenge the views and assumptions put forward in such interviews, although that too shouldn't be taken for granted these days. And of course I've made the same mistakes myself, whether due to laziness, pressure, or increasingly in these days of internet-based research, trying to find the one correct fact in a haystack of misinformation.

The best example - and the toughest story I've ever written in terms of finding some semblance of the truth - was a piece I wrote for the Herald about the Boxing Day Tsunami. Not only were major facts difficult to ascertain - the total number killed in Indonesia for example, will never be known - but even relatively trivial facts were hard to establish - the dimensions of a large ship washed inland is reported with so many variations all I could do was take an average, and hope. And that's assuming these variations were all reported in good faith - imagine if at the same time someone was trying to intentionally mislead me for their own purposes, even just a practical joke.

I don't want to be too po-faced about this, but to be honest I just don't think the gags are especially clever in this instance, or so dramatically outrageous as to really call into question the ability of the media to spot a fib at fifty yards. Most importantly, I don't think they're making a particularly satirical point (compared with, say, Eating Media Lunch at its best, seeing how long a talkback host would put up with a string of "tena kotou tena kotou..." before political correctness gives way to impatience).

Take for example the first instance, the hoax revealed on Jono's show this week. A photograph is staged purportedly showing eight mini-yolks to have come from one egg. The photo is distributed to the media. It is run as light entertainment on the Stuff website, and picked up by a regional newspaper. Later it is picked up by Breakfast, and run in what is traditionally a spot for regional trivia. Mission accomplished.

But what's the point? That you can fool the media, and therefore the public, that an egg had eight yolks? That all media have, to a greater or lesser extent, an interest in publishing or broadcasting trivia? Welcome to the eighties - let me introduce you to the phrase "cutesy animal story". Cutesy egg stories continue - here's another example from the Bay of Plenty Times just this week.

Is the point perhaps that the media should check facts more thoroughly? Should TVNZ have dispatched a reporter and crew down to the octo-yolk incident (and every such story), demanded affadavits, ordered DNA analysis to ensure the yolks were indeed of the alleged animal, and then, some weeks later, run the story with a sound conscience? Or is the point there should be no trivia on Breakfast television, an internet website, or a newspaper?

The second example, the interview with the pro-whaling spokesman, raises different issues. Because whaling is not trivia; it's an issue demanding much national and international attention, an issue serious enough that a New Zealand man is currently imprisoned in Japan for his actions.

It would be hypocritical of me to say humour should be forbidden in such situations - I make a good living taking the piss out of each weeks' events. The only thing I steer clear of personally are serious crime stories: I have never found much entertainment in the grief of others, which is why I no longer work in primetime current affairs.

As far as jokes go, again I think this one missed its mark. It was far too safe, for one. Portraying a dull, dry, libertarian on a mission to open discussion about commercial whaling and hoping to gain 500 signatures on a petition? Woah, watch out Jon Stewart. The axiom 'truth is stranger than fiction' springs to mind - if you were presented with the fake pro-whaling interview, and the all-too-real Young Act member Rick Giles on Sunrise, I doubt anyone would correctly choose the imposter. Even watching it after knowing it was fake, there was no "how could anyone believe that?" moment.

If you want to make a point about the gullability of media, and it's inability to spot a hoax, why not throw in a few 'fun facts' about the nutritious benefits of whale meat (100x richer in Omega 3, proven to fight free radicals and lower cholesterol, actually reverses the onset of type 2 diabetes...), the problem with whale overpopulation in certain regions and how some species are actually damaging their environment, the 'possums of the sea'... I don't know. The sort of thing you look back at and go 'ahhhh... we should have seen that coming'. Get that past the goalie and you've got something to be proud of.

Which is not to say there is no lesson to be learned from the would-be whaler. In my opinion, it is this: Stop giving column inches and airtime to people simply because their views are controversial. Ask yourself whether they represent a substantial minority (and even then, let's keep it somewhat proportionate), or whether there is some scientific evidence or research to back what they're saying. Or ask yourself if you're chasing controversy for its own sake. Because that serves no reasonable purpose. In the ratio of light:heat, it's all warmth and no illumination. There's plenty of rational debate and newsworthy conflict out there to make for interesting reading, listening and watching, without being mindlessly inflammatory.

In other words, let's never put that cantankerous old fool Bob Jones on TV again, please?

EDIT - Someone has already linked to this in the discussion page, but as there are a few hundred comments now, and as I've only just watched it and fell about laughing, I have to point to this guy, Kenny K-Strass Strasser, as how such a spoof should be done. (Hat tip: Stephen and Lewis)

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