You might have missed this story last week because it appeared in a small publication called The North Denver News, and if you haven’t read the News before, editor Guerin Green has given you a good reason never to bother in the future.
Last week the News published a story about a man who had surgery to his thumbs in order to make better use of his iPhone. Here’s the brief story:
Thomas Martel, 28, of Bonnie Brae is a big guy. So he has a hard time using the features on ever-shrinking user interfaces on devices like his new iPhone. At least, he did, until he had his thumbs surgically altered in a revolutionary new surgical technique known as “whittling.”
“From my old Treo, to my Blackberry, to this new iPhone, I had a hard time hitting the right buttons, and I always lost those little styluses,” explains Martel. “Sure, the procedure was expensive, but when I think of all the time I save by being able to use modern handhelds so much faster, I really think the surgery will pay for itself in ten to fifteen years. And what it’s saving me in frustration – that’s priceless.”
“This is really, on the edge sort of stuff,” explains Dr. Robert Fox Spars, who worked on developing the procedure. “We’re turning plastic surgery from something that people use in service of vanity, to a real tool for improving workplace efficiency.”
The procedure involved making a small incision into both thumbs and shaving down the bones, followed by careful muscular alteration and modification of the fingernails. While Martel’s new thumbs now appear small and effeminate in comparison to his otherwise very large hands, he says he can still lift “pretty much anything I could lift before the surgery – though opening spaghetti sauce jars has been a problem. That was a big surprise.”
That’s a pretty unbelievable story, and it certainly seems plausible. So much so that over the weekend it was linked to tech-related sites throughout the blogosphere. But the story was, in fact, completely untrue. The News made it up, and then the editor had the gall to print an explanation that accuses the reader of being dumb enough to take it seriously. Here’s what Green wrote a few days later:
Careful reading of the piece makes it clear to any critical consumer of information that the piece is pure humor and not news or reported as fact.
Among the points of the piece: that U.S. society accepts plastic surgery and decorative deformation of the human body for vanity, but not other reasons (consider the Bonds steroid stories); that technology has become a new cult phenomena, in which items are praised or ridiculed based upon tribal allegiances instead of functionality and performance (and we are members of the Cult of the Mac- iPhone division); and we like to pretend that some of our writers have a sense of humor…
…Additionally, many commentators have derided Mr. Martel for stupidity first and foremost, which may indicate something about their credulity. In an era when fake news, like Paris Hilton, has crowded out real news and public debate, the lesson is that skeptical consumption of information, whether from the North Denver News, the New York Times, or the National Review, is a must.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I thought the original story was true, and that’s because it appeared in a “straight news” publication with neither a strong hint that it was a joke nor a reason to print it as a joke (it’s not an April Fool’s issue, for example). I’m certainly not embarrassed that I “missed the joke,” and I don’t understand is why Green mocks his readers for not realizing that the story was meant as humor. The North Denver News bills itself as a community newspaper with a 35,000 person (yeah, right) readership; it doesn’t bill itself as a humor magazine like The Onion. In his editor’s note, in fact, Green calls the News “the largest community news presence in Denver.”
It wouldn’t have occurred to me that this story was a joke because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that a straight news publication would – out of nowhere – decide to print a fake news story. If a story is printed in The Denver Post or the Rocky Mountain News, my assumption is always going to be that I am reading real news. I’m not wondering why I didn’t get the joke. My question is simple: Why the hell would you purposely print a fake story in the first place?
Green’s explanation is, frankly, insulting. Take a look at how he explains the fake names used in the story:
FYI, there is no Thomas Martel (aka Tommy the Hammer) or Dr. Ben Fox Spars. The Fox of course, is reference to Fox News (aka Faux News).
What??? I’m supposed to have instantly recognized that a doctor with the name of “Fox” – which isn’t exactly an uncommon name – was really a clever reference to Fox News? Uh, sure.
It bothers me that a news publication would knowingly print a fake story, but it’s so much worse to insinuate that the reader is the one who is really at fault. I can’t even begin to comprehend the arrogance of Green, who suggests that this mock story is some sort of public service (“the lesson is that skeptical consumption of information, whether from the North Denver News, the New York Times, or the National Review, is a must,” he writes). I’ll offer another lesson: You can’t take the North Denver News seriously as a news publication. It looks like the joke is really on you, Mr. Green.