The last time the media fell for a Yes Men-affiliated hoax press release, it inspired a discussion about speed versus accuracy in journalism. This week the AP was duped by a fake announcement that GE had decided to donate its $3.2 billion “tax refund” to the U.S. government, but it has caused less introspection on the part of the press. In fact, the hoaxsters feel that kind of self-examination misses the point.
In order to achieve its goal of being the source of legitimate news reports, the fake release was draped in the trappings of authenticity: it was hosted on a website that looked like GE’s media site and had a very similar domain name. (GE’s news is online at genewscenter.com; the release was online at genewscenters.com.) The hoax announcement mimicked traditional corporate press release language and formatting, and included quotes from the company’s CEO, as well as the GE logo and standard GE boilerplate.
Yet for all of those efforts, the release screamed hoax from headline all the way down to the contact information at the bottom that directed reporters to one “Samuel Winnacker,” a person who has never appeared in a previous GE press release.
The GE release looked like a real announcement but was littered with so many red flags that it seems outrageous any journalist could begin to churn out an article without realizing they were being duped. I initially wondered if its creators hadn’t really thought things through. So I did the only thing a journalist trying to accurately report on a fake press release could do: I called the fake PR guy. (For the record, I also contacted AP business editor Hal Ritter to talk about the wire service’s procedure for verifying press releases. He referred me to AP’s PR guy.)
I rang the number for Samuel Winnacker. He called me back and admitted his real name is Justin Wedes. He is a member of US Uncut, the group who claimed responsibility for the hoax in conjunction with the Yes Men’s Yes Labs. He said people have rightly noted “the amazing unbelievability of that press release.” He believes it was mistaken for the real thing because people wanted to believe that a corporate giant could actually behave this way.
“This is something that struck a nerve with Americans, be they AP reporters or everyday citizens, because it is what we should be hearing and what we need to hear to fix our economy,” he said.
As for the AP’s error, he sees the same factor at play.
“I don’t attribute [AP’s mistake] to the speed of the news cycle,” Wedes said. “We have very intelligent reporters out there. I attribute it to the fact that this is what people wanted to hear.”
I imagine the offending AP reporter would disagree.
But where I see typical journalistic error, Wedes sees hope.
“When people took a careful eye to [the release], they really did realize that it offered so much of what Americans want to hear from GE,” he said.
With that in mind, let’s give the release a good Fisking and see how many (aspirational) red flags we can identify.
GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt has informed the Obama administration that the company will be gifting its entire 2010 tax refund, worth $3.2 Billion, to the US Treasury on April 18, Tax Day, and will furthermore adopt a host of new policies that secure its position as a leader in corporate social responsibility.
This section offers two immediate clues that this is not a genuine release. First of all, GE did not receive a tax refund in 2010. (It did however earn tax benefits totaling $3.2 billion, according to the New York Times report that set off scrutiny of the company.) Anyone who took a moment to check the recent controversy would discover that the issue was the fact that GE paid nothing in taxes. There was no refund to give back.