John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Worse than Groundhog Day

April 1 is a day on which I ought to do the same things I do on Superbowl Sunday: lock the door, draw the blinds, and lie on the floor until it’s all over.*

Though some wit manifests itself – Google’s transforming itself to Topeka for the day to mock that city’s offer to change its name to Google to acquire fiber optics, or the announcement on the Johns Hopkins Web site that it is changing its name to John Hopkins, with a photo of a crane removing an s from a building – we are mainly subjected to a flood of tedious japes.

Some of them come from newspapers, which you might imagine would have more regard for their credibility.

Hoaxes always take someone in. It was not April but December in 1917 that H.L. Mencken published a history of the bathtub in the United States, a jocular essay entirely fictional. To his mingled amusement and chagrin, it took on a life of its own, being solemnly quoted in newspaper articles and books for decades, even after he had exposed the hoax.

And there is the problem. Tina Stone, one of the members of the Michigan Hutaree militia arrested last month, “thought that President Barack Obama had signed into law this month a bill that would spend $20 billion to help the terrorist group Hamas settle in the U.S.,” according to the Detroit Free Press. She had, you see, read it on the Internet. Practicing on the simple will not make your life illustrious.

When the public struggles in a torrent of information, much of it only approximately accurate and some of it outright fraudulent, when the discipline of skeptical editing appears to be as archaic as illuminating manuscripts, the charm of hoaxes fades quickly.**

*This method also works for the Academy Awards.

**Yes, I’m an old grump.


  1. The Taco Bell Liberty Bell from just over a decade ago was pretty good. Look it up.

  2. For what it's worth, my favourite silly headline today was ScienceBlogs' "CERN Scientists Awaken Balrog". My least favourite story, by some margin, was this feeble effort from Ireland's national broadcaster.

  3. If I understand the Detroit Free Press article correctly, the Hamas hoax was not a lighthearted joke but rather a deliberate lie that was intended to do exactly what it did: inflame the credulous. (Kind of like everything that comes out of Glenn Beck's mouth.) So it seems to me that it should be filed with "political dirty tricks" rather than "silly April Fool's Day hoaxes."