Around Penn Station I hesitated at a stoplight, despite the walk signal, because of a man handing out newspapers. This itself did not strike me as strange, as “free” papers are shoved daily into the outstretched hands of a mass of workers heading toward various offices. The man handing out this particular paper, however, was different: why had I never seen him before? a free New York Times? a young, Columbia-like student handing out papers? breaking news that did not make the press? I almost continued on my way, hesitated, stepped back, and reached out to take a paper. The way he handed it to me, carefully folding it in half, suggested it was an item of significance, and this too struck me as strange. Who still carefully fondles a newspaper most of us read online? It is safe to assume I read too much into the way people handle and view objects, the chances of this being like any other “promotional paper” were much higher than it being different, but in this case I was lucky in being correct.
The paper was a prank put forth by a group called The Yes Men,“a group of culture jamming activists who practice what they call “identity correction” by pretending to be powerful people and spokespersons for prominent organizations.” The special edition I was handed was a brilliantly faithful copy of the nytimes, at least at first glance. My first glance landed on the headline, Iraq War Ends. I was still walking and dodging and could not read the fine print, which would have instantly given away the joke. Instead I concluded my walk by trying to explain why the Bush administration would have such a drastic change of heart. At work I asked my co-worker, and laughing we understood the joke by reading the date under the headline—July 4th, 2009. Then of course I wondered, why would the nytimes print a promotional of such content? Searching for an explanation from my desk, it surprised me that only a few blogs covered the “fake” paper, I had expected political or copyright outrage. Only new yorker’s would toss away such a prank with only the slightest flicker of a desensitized smile.
Reading through the paper in quick snatches throughout the day, it seemed to be the perfect gimmick, six months of planning showed in the details, and the content reminded me of the Onion in its better moments. I tried to make a list of all the issues they covered and critiqued, but could not make a complete lineup. Every story, advertisement, sentence, and layout detail was a joke, most of which I knew I was missing. The columnist’s articles were densely layered, with all plausibility vanishing by the end of each column. One of the best was the article concerning the Bush indictment on a “high treason charge,” which he initiated himself, where his Christian faith was the “catalyst for this unprecedented action.” The advertisements were another high point, such as McDonald’s endorsement of revolution with heroes like Che Guevara wearing the arch. Exxon/Mobil ran a full-page ad owning up to the fact that, “peace can also be lucrative!”
My critique was that by the end of the paper it seemed as lacking in substance as our celebrity tabloids, the prank turned itself into too much of a joke instead of maintaining the dire social comment it began as. Accusations aimed toward our corrupt administration, the large corporations invested in it, and our hitherto support were too comic and therefore dismissible. The real joke, however, falls upon the New York Times. In the back of the “fake” there is a “we apologize” section that admits to endorsing the war, “making the case for it in the first place,” and they even refreshingly own up to “supporting the costly and deadly U.S. occupation…long after public opinion had turned against it.” Larger problems with our media, even the so-called “liberal” media, are left hanging. I wonder if there is a warning written somewhere between the lines, a sly questioning of our optimism toward a change of guard in the white house. An ad spoofing HSBC is perhaps one of the most serious in the article, or it hit a cord outside the realm of political propaganda.
…the more we look at the world the more we understand that some things really matter. Not only our choice of president, but how we make sure that he, like all our elected officials, does what we elected him to do. It’s not over yet.
The reaction from the “real” nytimes itself, who reluctantly acknowledged such a prank had happened, spent much of their article pointing out this has happened before. A former Times reporter said, “I consider this a gigantic compliment to The Times.” I would suggest they missed the point, but I imagine they “got it” more than most, and better than they might care to mention.