Prairie Lights: No more room for once-innocent traditions

Surf

John Warner

Maybe the world was a better place when news outlets like ours could publish photos like this.

I won’t come right out and blame the current occupant of the White House, but a phenomenon already indelibly associated with his presidency has caused me to make an important decision about the future of Last Best News.

At least temporarily, and perhaps forever, we will not be running any more fake news. I say this with a heavy heart because April Fool’s Day is just six weeks away, and photographer John Warner and I had already been talking about ideas for this year’s spoof.

Ed Kemmick

Ed Kemmick

We published our first spoof on April 1, 2014, about surfing the Billings Bench Water Association canal. I had as much fun writing that story as I’ve ever had writing about anything, mostly because I was trying to match the brilliance of Warner’s Photoshop wizardry.

We missed 2015 (just plumb forgot) but last year we collaborated on a spoof about the Running of the Bison in Laurel, a project on which Warner outdid himself. It was, I almost hesitate to admit, the best-read story of the year on Last Best News.

But there will be no spoof this April 1. Likewise, I will not be introducing any more fictitious characters into my Prairie Lights column. That means saying goodbye to “the sage,” a creature of my own fancy who made his way into many of my columns at the Gazette, and one column here. I’ll definitely miss the sage.

And I certainly won’t pull a hoax like the one I did last year about Jennifer Lawrence moving into a penthouse apartment in the middle of the Phillips 66 refinery. In that case, I was trying to make fun of a particular subset of fake news I discovered last summer—stories that said this or that celebrity was moving into just about every town in America.

Those stories were pure click-bait fakes, and I thought by mentioning those other fake-news stories in my parody, it would be obvious that the Lawrence story—jammed with what I thought were wildly improbable details—was also a joke.

Unfortunately, way too many people believed it, and more than a few lectured me on running such a hoax on an otherwise dependable news site. I should have learned from Mark Twain, whose experience with this business I mentioned briefly last week during a panel discussion on fake news at the Billings Public Library.

Twain, when he was a reporter in Virginia City, Nev., was appalled by the public’s willingness to believe widespread reports about the discovery of petrified men. “The mania was becoming a little ridiculous,” Twain wrote later. “…I chose to kill the petrification mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire.”

Evidently his satire was too delicate, with the result that his article was widely reprinted, only feeding the public’s fascination with the fraud.

My journalistic hero, H.L. Mencken, wrote about working as the Sunday editor on the Baltimore Herald in 1901, and soon discovering that there was very little news stirring on the Sabbath, and what little there was tended to be “a great deal less than exhilarating.”

But then, for six weeks running, and only on Sunday evenings, there were reports of a wild man on the loose just over Baltimore’s northern city-line, “with every dog barking for miles around, and all women and children locked up.”

“I got special delight out of the wild man,” Mencken wrote in his memoirs, “for I had invented him myself.”

I mentioned Mencken during the panel discussion, too, and I brought up the late Mark Henckel, the Gazette outdoors editor whose annual April Fool’s spoofs were so good that even those of us who worked with him would get suckered in, year after year.

These laudable attempts to infuse a little levity into the overly sober pages of daily newspapers had always seemed so harmless to me. Maybe they were, but no more. The explosion of fake news—blatantly false stories invented and distributed to generate revenue or score political points—requires all of us to draw lines.

You can’t be The Onion one day and a reliable source of news the next. I briefly thought of labeling certain pieces as “satire” or “spoof,” but that seems like an infallible way of ruining a joke, or killing a buzz.

We will still give our opinion in our columns and in the Last Best Blog section of this site. In our news stories we will continue to be as scrupulously fair and accurate as possible.

There may come a time when we feel it is safe to reintroduce some of the newspaper traditions mentioned above, and our new policy doesn’t exclude other means of entertaining our readers. But until further notice, there will be no more hoaxes, spoofs or invented characters. No fooling.

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