Newspaper history waddles with examples of editors and reporters making things up for a laugh or to make a point. In the 1800s, editors jammed their pages with made-up stories about monsters, disasters and fantastic hogwash to keep their readers engaged. Tall tales about man-eating trees, life on the moon, and cotton-picking monkeys, as scholar Frank Luther Mott reported in his 1942 article, “Facetious News Writing, 1833-1883”. The practice became so common in the early 20th century that the New York World established a bureau to eliminate “fakes and fakers.” As I’ve written before, H.L. Mencken wrote fakes for Baltimore’s newspapers. Ben Hecht did the same in Chicago. Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his fake coverage of the Soviet Union. In the contemporary era, most journalistic fakes are written not to make a point or garner a giggle but because the writers failed to get the actual story and had to file something. See Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jack Kelley, Jayson Blair and Jay Forman, for examples.
This current run of prank headlines echoes the parody issues of newspapers and magazines that the Harvard Lampoon (and then the National Lampoon) made popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and then similar efforts by the National Lampoon. In 1978, a fake edition of the New York Times written by members of the journalistic literati sent up the nation’s leading newspaper with pitch-perfect mimicry. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal got the treatment, and in 2019, it was the Washington Post’s turn. But unlike the new social media parodies, parody issues were transparently jokey and not designed to fool anybody.
The hoaxer(s) currently spray-painting fake headlines on social don’t seem to fit snuggly into any of the taxonomical categories we’ve established over the years. Their japes are not as fantastic as cotton-picking monkeys. They don’t make a sustained joke like the Lampoon-type print parodists. They’re not failed writers making up stories to complete assignments. And worst of all, they’re not very witty. Compare their efforts to the day-in, day-out labors of the New York Times Pitchbot on Twitter, which decodes the Times, especially its opinion section, to great comic effect. (Example: “Opinion|Between Trump getting impeached twice and Biden getting covid twice, both sides seem to be repeating themselves,” by Frank Bruni.) A generous speculation of what motivates the hoaxers’ typographical comedy would describe them as social critics who delight in sniping at the establishment press at the same time as sending up an assortment of political figures. An ungenerous appraisal would concede that they are trolls who are too lazy to attempt anything more ambitious than painting a mustache on a campaign poster.
There’s a reason April Fool’s Day is the unfunniest day of the publishing year. Making a point with parody is hard work and should not be attempted without deep thought. It might seem funny to stick gum into a vending machine coin slot, but as quality jokes go, it’s right up there with putting a flaming sack of dog turds on a suburban porch and ringing the doorbell. It’s just mischief in action, the cheapest joke around.
Perhaps that’s too harsh a judgment. The hoaxer(s) might have more substantive motives behind their pranks. Maybe they’re genuine in their attempts to send up the foolishness of online headlines, which often sensationalize the blah copy they preview. Authority deserves every kick in the shins it gets, and that goes for the Atlantic, the New York Times, CNN and Fox News and the entire journalistic establishment. Maybe they’re demonstrating the credulousness of web-readers and want to make fools of them. Maybe they’ve devised their headlines to democratize parody — to show not just Harvard grads and established journalists can play this game!
As P.J. O’Rourke, the finest parodist of our times once put it, the two greatest joys in life are making things and breaking things. Vandalism needs no greater validation that the destructive act itself. So, go forward hoaxer(s) and do your thing. Just understand that you’re harmless.
What’s your favorite O’Rourke piece? For personal reasons, mine is the piece that was originally titled “Holiday in Lebanon” and later collected in book form. Send your fave to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed is parody free. My RSS feed is all parody all the time.