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Dr Seuss Lives

A blogger hoax shows up our gullible media

Dr Seuss Lives
Dr Seuss Lives
With rising EMIs, a tanking Sensex and excruciating negotiations over the nuclear deal, we needed something to laugh about this week. As if on cue, several newspapers, including respected names in Indian journalism like The Indian Express, Asian Age, Deccan Herald and The Telegraph, unwittingly obliged by falling for a bloggers' prank, and front-paging or prominently displaying a story so full of nonsense-names that it could have been written by Lewis Carroll or Dr Seuss.

Penpricks, a Goa-based group of bloggers with a reputation for taking on the media, has posted a hilarious account (penpricks. blogspot.com) of how it cooked up and sold to the media its improbable story about an 88-year-old German Nazi musician called Johann Bach hiding in Goa with nothing smaller than a priceless 18th-century grand piano. With the help of Google Images, Yahoo Babel software and Microsoft Word Art, it manufactured a press release embellished with official-looking logos, German words like Pressekommuniqua and Unterschrift, and a picture of an old man with European features. ("Sorry gramps," the bloggers apologise, "whoever you are, wherever you are.") They also recount, in gloating detail, how they followed up the release with phone calls to Goa newsrooms in thick, honest-to-goodness German accents.

The media has a long, rich tradition of being duped. In a 'Nazigate' of far more serious proportions, the well-known German magazine Stern was fooled into carrying forged dairies claiming to be Hitler's. But hoaxes are usually finessed to seem authentic; our case was schoolboy humour gone mad. It had a German intelligence wing called Perus Narkp, alias Superprank, with "Eht rea enp cabk skripe", an anagram for "the pen pricks are back", as its motto; an official with the distinctly unTeutonic name, Dulab Malak, aka Abdul Kalam; a concentration camp called Marsha Tikash Whanaab, which unscrambles into Shrama Shakti Bhawan, a Goa journo hangout.

There was a point to riddling the story with absurdities, the bloggers say. Upset with the media for projecting "every tidbit, every rumour, every sliver of gossip" relating to the Scarlett Keeling and Aarushi Talwar murders as "gospel truth", they wanted to show it up as not just careless about cross-checking information given to it by police and others, but also gullible. "Nazigate," they declare, "is an attempt by Penpricks to pay the media back in its own unworthy coin."

Well, it certainly succeeded. The story, which "broke" in the Goa papers on June 28, survived for an astonishing two days, being avidly picked up by some national and regional papers (and in most cases, without scepticism). As the story travelled, it also sprouted new leaves, and even, in one case, a map of Bach's travels. The "war criminal", readers were told, had spoken to an Israeli couple at a rave party, had placed an internet ad for selling the piano, and had been "nabbed after a 36-hour hot chase". Best of all, he had "been airlifted to Berlin". The press release had said none of these things. "It was embarrassing to see how national newspapers sexed up the story with fake details," Penpricks said in response to an email from Outlook.

"Hats off to Penpricks," says media critic Sevanti Ninan. "They have sometimes been criticised for being biased in their attacks on the media, but this one is delicious and audacious, and does show up the media. Did no one even run a Google check on the names in the press release? How were reporters given bylines for a story they didn't check out?" As the Bach story acquired a life of its own, it became clear journalists were not the only ones with egg on their faces. A Karnataka police officer was quoted as confirming not just the arrest but the Berlin airlift, another story that quoted unnamed Intelligence Bureau officials. No wonder then that when the hoax unravelled, some newspapers were quick to blame the same unnamed officials. But at least until the time of going to press, there were no mea culpas by the national newspapers that had run with the story. Fooled, as one gleeful blogger put it, into celebrating April Fools' Day too early, they were apparently in no mood for introspection—at least not publicly.
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