Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish
(November 2008)

So many themes and outrages collide in this story, and the unethical conduct of the liars in question, Mr. Gorlin and Mr. Mirvish, may be the least significant of the batch.

Begin with the “leaked revelations” of “anonymous McCain staffers” that Governor Sarah Palin “didn’t know that Africa was a continent and not a country” and “couldn’t name the signatories of NAFTA,” meaning that she didn’t know what three countries made up North America. Supposed eye-witness accounts that a nominee for Vice-President couldn’t pass 6th Grade geography is news if vetted, attributed, and verified, and mean-spirited gossip, rumor and slander if not. Sure, it amuses and convinces those reflexive Palin-haters who also believe that she wasn’t really the mother of her youngest child, tried to ban books and was determined to wipe wolves from the face of the earth, but any fair person of normal intelligence should respond to such a claim with, “Really? That sounds highly unlikely. Who says this, and based on what?” If those questions can’t be made as public as the claims, then the claims should stay where they belong: in the pages of tabloids, on bile and profanity-spewing blogs, and Keith Olberman’s nightly conservative-insult orgy on MSNBC.

But no: they were published and broadcast by the “respectable” media, a term that now has about as much believability as “King of the Leprechauns.” Gov. Palin called the claims absurd and cowardly, as she should have. David Shuster, Olberman’s young protégé on MSCNBC who is still working on being as insufferably pompous as his role model, had a scoop, based on a blog revelation. “Turns out it was Martin Eisenstadt, a McCain policy adviser, who has come forward today to identify himself as the source of the leaks,” Mr. Shuster said.

But Martin Eisenstadt doesn’t exist. His blog is a put-on. The think tank where he is a senior fellow, the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy, is a prop. The TV clips of him on YouTube are fakes. Eisenstadt, a hoax policy expert invented by Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish, had been putting out lies on the blog for months. Another blog called sourcewatch.org had flagged the site as a hoax after considerable investigation. Never mind: Eisenstadt’s “scoops” were still cited by other bloggers as reliable news items.

The news media, at least those who didn’t fall for the hoax, seem to think this is funny.

Funny…that a phony blog and an imaginary source can intentionally plant items in the news, where, like Orson Wells’ Martian invasion, they will convince the gullible, the careless and, most of all, the trusting, be repeated endless times to others, and generally pollute the precious but already muddy substance once referred to as truth.

Not funny. It might be funny if the journalistic profession had any standards or integrity, but as the 2008 election cycle proved, it does not. It is not justification to say, as Eisenstadt’s inventors do, that their stunt proves how sloppy the media is. Anyone with a brain stem knows that. We do not applaud those who show how easy it is to defraud the IRS by defrauding it, or how easy it is to alarm airport security officials by making comments about bombs, or how easy it is to hack into Defense Department computers by hacking away. We should not applaud news hoaxes either, precisely because journalists, unlike the IRS, airport security and the Defense Department, don’t take their responsibility to the public seriously enough to get angry when their routine laziness, bias and sloth leads them to publish lies as facts.

Gorlin and Mirvish are similar to merry pranksters who decide to prove that the water system isn’t secure by poisoning it. They just don’t kill people. But misinformation today still does a lot of damage, and the ethical way to address the problem is not to create more of it.

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