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The news is broken

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A few minutes after 11 on Monday morning, investors got a surprising bit of news on CNBC.

"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now getting ready to throw its weight behind strong climate legislation," the business channel's reporter announced, as "Breaking News" flashed on the screen.

About the same time, the Reuters news service fired off a bulletin on its wire: "US CHAMBER OF COMMERCE SAYS WILL NO LONGER OPPOSE CLIMATE CHANGE LEGISLATION." The news was automatically posted on Web sites of news organizations subscribing to Reuters, including the New York Times and, um, The Washington Post.

Fox Business News, too, went with the "breaking" graphic. "Breaking news, right now, the Chamber of Commerce saying it will reverse its position on the climate-change bill," the anchor reported. A few seconds later, he paused. "Apparently we just called the Chamber of Commerce," he said, "and they're denying that they are changing their position." The anchor, still on air, began a discussion with his producer before explaining to his audience, "It's live TV, folks."

Live, but not real. Four days earlier, it was the Balloon Boy, who, it later turned out, was not trapped on a runaway dirigible over Colorado. A month earlier, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, cable news outlets broadcast alarms about a possible terrorist strike on the Potomac River near the Pentagon; it turned out to be a Coast Guard drill. On Monday, it was the Chamber of Commerce's turn to enter the instant-news chamber of horrors.

In the current media environment, where it's more important to have it first than to get it right, it won't be long until the next mix-up.

A group of liberal activists called the Yes Men made up a Web site (http://chamber-of-commerce.us instead of the real http://uschamber.com) and e-mailed fake news releases announcing that the business lobby had suddenly changed its view on global warming. It used a bogus name to rent a room at the National Press Club and stuck the Chamber's logo on a lectern as it made the phony announcement to a group of reporters -- some actors and some real.

"Reporters" claiming to be from the "Herald Tribune" and the "Express News" sat down among the real reporters, including The Post's David A. Fahrenthold. Andy Bichlbaum, one of the Yes Men, posed as suit-wearing Chamber spokesman Hingo Sembra (not a real person) and delivered the "news" that was also sent out as a "statement" by Chamber President Tom Donahue.

About 20 minutes into this performance, a real Chamber spokesman, tipped off by the press club and a reporter to the fake event, burst into the room.

"This is not an official U.S. Chamber of Commerce event," Eric Wohlschlegel declared, introducing himself and making his way to the lectern. "This is a fraudulent press activity and a stunt."

"Who are you really, sir?" asked Sembra/Bichlbaum.

"Can I see your business card?"

"Can I see yours?"

"I work there, and you do not look familiar to me at all," Wohlschlegel, with a pencil behind his ear, went on. "This guy does not represent the Chamber of Commerce."

"You can't barge in here and interrupt our press conference," Sembra/Bichlbaum argued.

"This is a fraud! He's lying!" the real spokesman shouted. "It's a fraudulent press conference."

The news conference dissolved into two news conferences, as spokesman and impostor each gave reporters his version of events.

It was, as Fahrenthold artfully put it, "a spectacle not usually seen in the John Peter Zenger Room at the National Press Club." The game came to an end when Sembra/Bichlbaum declined to produce a business card, or even a driver's license, for Fahrenthold. But by then, it was already too late, and the news had ricocheted around the world.

Twenty minutes after his initial breaking news, CNBC Washington correspondent Hampton Pearson was back on air with some new news. "The Chamber now says it is absolutely a hoax," he explained, detailing the news release that had started the whole thing. "It looked authentic, if you will," he said. "It has the Chamber's logo we're all familiar with, even the boilerplate at the end of a typical Chamber of Commerce news release."

In fact, the fakery done by the Yes Men, the same group that put out a phony edition of the New York Post with a global warming cover announcing "We're Screwed," was most professional. The Web site looked authentic and linked to the real Chamber site. The group used a made-up address in New York to register its Web domain. At the last minute, members changed the contact for their event at the press club to that of the real Chamber. And when officials of the press club, spotting the Chamber posters and stationery, demanded that they remove the logos, the hoaxsters complied -- until the press club officials left the area. On top of that, the implausible notion of the Chamber supporting climate-change legislation had become slightly more plausible because companies such as Apple had recently quit the group over the issue.

There were clues, of course, such as the name of the Chamber "spokeswoman" listed in the original news release: Erica Avidus. Reporters and bloggers later figured out that "avidus" comes from a Latin word meaning greedy.

But in an instant news culture, who has time to check out such things?

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