Fake It till You Make It

Andrew Hultkrans on fake news

Saturday Night Live, 1975–, still from a TV show on NBC. Season 1, episode 10.

DURING SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE’S initial 1970s run, Dan Aykroyd starred in a skit parodying newspaper entrepreneur Charles Foster Kane of Citizen Kane (1941), a thinly veiled speculative biopic about real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, known for his papers’ yellow journalism. The film was directed by Orson Welles, who prior to coming to Hollywood had made national news with his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, in which actors pretending to be news announcers breathlessly reported the landing of spaceships in New Jersey. The broadcast was simply an imaginative recasting of the H. G. Wells science-fiction classic, but many listeners believed an alien invasion was underway and called their local papers for verification.

In the SNL skit, which lampoons an actual scene in Citizen Kane, Aykroyd has just started his first newspaper, and he and several colleagues sit in their office at night, bemoaning the lack of sensational news that would boost the fledgling paper’s profile. Aykroyd removes a pistol from a desk drawer, walks over to the window, and shoots a number of pedestrians on the street below, killing them. Turning to his colleagues, he barks, “Take a headline, Bernstein: ‘Crazed Sniper Guns Down Six!’” He continues shooting pedestrians throughout the skit, offering new headlines for each: “Get out an extra! ‘Sniper Kills Organ Grinder’s Monkey, Not Even Pets Safe in Weird Murder Spree.’”

Aykroyd, of course, also played the anchorman on the recurring Weekend Update skit, one of the earliest manifestations of satirical fake news on television, presaging The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and countless others. And Welles wrote and directed the deceptive documentary F for Fake (1975), a cinematic essay on art forgery, media hoaxes, and the slippery nature of truth that itself indulges in genial, winking mendacity. To recap: Kane, a fake Hearst, who was a real purveyor of fake news, was played by Welles, a lifelong enthusiast of magic and fakery who, before and after playing the fake Hearst, perpetrated media hoaxes in the real world, which led to, decades later, Aykroyd playing a fake Kane who generates fake news with real actions, while elsewhere on the same TV show he plays a fake anchorman delivering fake news to a live studio audience.

As the above illustrates, reporting reality is a tricky, endlessly reflexive process, an ouroboros of self-generating, self-devouring facts and narratives that themselves create other facts and narratives, which can then spread virally. There’s a term of art for this, “circular reporting,” in which news is reported as if it were confirmed by multiple sources (usually other news organs) when it actually emanated from a single, possibly fraudulent source. Anyone who witnessed the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath, which persists to this day, knows that we are currently experiencing peak fake news—not only the unprecedented frequency and reach of ersatz news stories, but also the constant media discussion of the issue as a national scandal, a disease in the body politic that must be eradicated before it consigns any consensual notion of “truth” to utter irrelevance.

Alan Abel, Paul Hiatt, and Andrew Lampert speak at “Faked/Out” at Recess on April 1, 2017. Photo: Alison Burstein.

To interrogate this peculiar moment, the artist Andrew Lampert, formerly a longtime curator at Anthology Film Archives, recently staged one of Recess’s “Sessions,” in which an artist unfolds a process-based work. Under the rubric Public Opinion Laboratory, Lampert presented “Faked/Out” from March 10 through April 8, proposing the fake-news bureau FONI (Faked Out News Inc.) and hosting a series of speakers on topics such as libel, academic fraud, fact-checking, impersonation, UFOlogy, and media hoaxes. The news bureau, which promised to create and spread fake news stories, appears to be fake; at least I can’t find any record of its work. In my two visits to Recess, one to see a talk by legendary media prankster Alan Abel, there was no sign of any news-generating activity, though there were color printouts on the wall of stills from films concerning fake news—Network (1976), Ace in the Hole (1951), etc. Introducing the Abel talk, Lampert said he was “less interested in news, more interested in fake . . . Fake news offers more hope than reality does.”

The “Faked/Out” press release further elaborates Lampert’s perspective: “Rather than go on the attack and decry the fake as malice, this project operates from the premise that fakeness and fake news can provide an optimistic space for wish fulfillment and self-actualization . . . Alternative facts and alternative fictions are possible daydream spaces that might serve as portals to hopeful futures and unobtainable realities . . . Does accepting fake news as a given rather than a problem provide us with the impetus we need to create the world we want?”

It has become fashionable in recent years among producers and consumers of culture to celebrate artifice and decry appeals to “authenticity”—from writing music criticism in the prevailing “poptimist” mode to bashing mason-jar hipsters to satirizing a waitress’s absurdly detailed explication of the provenance of an organic chicken (“His name was Colin”) in a Portlandia skit. I call it antihipster hipsterism, and it is presently threatening to become what it once quite reasonably opposed—a rigid orthodoxy allowing no deviation from the purity of its core premises, unable to accept or even entertain countervailing views.

Portlandia, 2011–, still from a TV show on IFC. Season 1, episode 1.

The reasons for this pendulum swing in reception values—rejecting “the real,” however manufactured, in favor of the proudly fake, exchanging cool for glee, MTV Unplugged for American Idol—were legitimate and understandable. The 1990s “alternative” culture eventually ossified into a puritanical, exclusionary movement, automatically suspicious of anything that smacked of consumerism, glamour, and artifice, qualities often stereotypically associated with female and LGBTQ tastes.

Meanwhile, social media and search algorithms have isolated people in increasingly specific filter bubbles, such that they rarely encounter worldviews that might conflict with their own. Everyone at every point on the political spectrum feels entitled to their own reality. This is a recipe for disaster. In little over a decade, we have gone from Bush administration officials referring to mainstream journalists as members of the “reality-based community” to a situation where the president tweets provocative falsehoods on a weekly basis, behaving like a classic internet troll, intending to derail discussions, divert inquiries, and destabilize the very concept of consensus reality.

Yes, we all loved The Onion, but Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” are not funny. Sean Spicer telling us that we can’t believe our own eyes when comparing photos of inauguration crowds is Orwellian, demanding that we accept that 2+2=5 if the state says so. Trump’s smearing of the mainstream media as “enemies of the people” is Fascism 101. In such an environment, characterizing fake news as “wish fulfillment” in the service of attaining “hopeful futures and unobtainable realities” seems off, anachronistic, better placed in the pomo underground of the 1980s and 1990s, when the reality stakes were lower and serious bullshit like the Church of the SubGenius and RE/Search’s Pranks book (an inspiration to Lampert) were sources of endless amusement.

In many ways, the authenticity versus artifice debate is an argument about capitalism; real versus fake easily translates to substance versus packaging. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, a 1985 critique of television’s baleful effects on culture and politics that is currently enjoying renewed attention, Neil Postman wrote, “American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display.” The question remains as to whether we trust American businessmen, including the walking gilt facade that is Donald Trump, as stewards of the ship of state—or of reality itself.