behind the news

Fake Press Release Tricks the Morning News

Bali climate talks provoke little excitement otherwise
December 4, 2007

Despite some 1,500 articles from around the world already (according a Google search), there is as yet little news coming out of the United Nations climate conference in Bali, which started yesterday. There was, however, some related mischief back in the United States.

Posturing as the United States Climate Action Partnership (a high-profile consortium of businesses and environmentalists), a group of environmental activists sent a phony press release to major news outlets on Monday. The memo said that USCAP members (which include the likes of Alcoa, Caterpillar, DuPont, Environmental Defense, and the Natural Resources Defense Council) had agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent by 2050. The release also called on the world governments assembled in Bali to do the same and impose a moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired power plants. The press release was backed up by an official-looking Web site (now gone) and claimed to have been sent by a public relations firm called Parsons & Fischer.

It didn’t take long for the press to expose the fraud, but not before a numbers of news outlets and blogs – most notably, The Dallas Morning News – wrote and published the false USCAP announcement. The Morning News even called the spurious PR firm and talked with a bogus USCAP representative. The resultant story is gone now, but the paper published another one is in place describing the hoax. It turns out, a group called Rising Tide, an informal network of activists spread over the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia, engineered and orchestrated the whole affair. In fact, the group is now happily taking credit and using coverage of its hijinks to now promulgate its anti-carbon message in its own name.

Its attempt to set the record straight, the Morning News quotes one of Rising Tide’s organizers, Jessica Starr, defending the prank as “a free speech tactic.” Nonetheless, the same articles reports, USCAP is thinking about pursuing legal action against Rising Tide. Wired gave Rising Tide and even fairer shake, publishing an online article that includes a short Q&A with Matt Leonard, an organizer who was quoted on the fake press at “Matt Leopard.” In the article, Leonard has the opportunity to discuss not only the hoax, but also more of his group’s politics. The ordeal even crossed the Atlantic, to be picked by The Guardian. Its article includes an interesting mention of Greenpeace, which apparently bought the press release, too, but sympathizes with the unorthodox tactics. The article also mentions that pranksters might be copycatting a better-known group of imposters called the Yes Men, who impersonate oil executives for environmental ends.

To his credit, The New York Times‘ Andy Revkin appears to have been the first recognize, or at least out, the faulty press on his blog, Dot Earth. And Greenwire’s Michael Burnham appears to have been the first to get confirmation from Rising Tide that it orchestrated the ruse. Whatever the case may be, the mischievous activists at Rising Tide may not have succeeded (and surely never could have) in affecting the climate talks in Bali. Their efforts have, nonetheless, drawn a lot attention to the group itself and its ideas. Perhaps one of the reporters who covered the hoax should have asked, what were their real intentions?

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.