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.

Death of Susan Tifft

I was sorry to learn today of the death of Susan Tifft from brain cancer.

Ms. Tifft was a professor of journalism at Duke University. She collaborated with her husband, Alex S. Jones, on two notable books about American newspaper dynasties: The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty and The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times.

There are two ways to honor those who accomplish great things in our craft. The first is to read and celebrate their work. The second is to follow their example.