'Balloon Boy' Just One Of Many Media Hoaxes The Heene family's balloon hoax is just a recent example of how the news media can be tricked into believing something that isn't real. From runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and his trip to Argentina, nominate your favorite media hoax.
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'Balloon Boy' Just One Of Many Media Hoaxes

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'Balloon Boy' Just One Of Many Media Hoaxes

'Balloon Boy' Just One Of Many Media Hoaxes

'Balloon Boy' Just One Of Many Media Hoaxes

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113971889/113971872" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Heene family's balloon hoax is just a recent example of how the news media can be tricked into believing something that isn't real. From runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and his trip to Argentina, nominate your favorite media hoax.

Greg Gilderman, senior editor for The Daily Beast
Alex Boese, author of The Museum of Hoaxes
Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Last Thursday, every cable TV network in the country showed a silvery balloon soaring above the landscape of Eastern Colorado. We thought a six-year-old boy was inside. Turns out we were wrong. The six-year-old, Falcon Heene, was found safe at home. He told CNN his parents asked him to play along for the show. Apparently Falcon's father wanted to create publicity for a reality TV show. So to start this hour, we have a celebration of the greatest hoaxes ever. Later this hour, Lenny Kravitz will be in the studio. He's on tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first rock album, �Let Love Rule.�

But first, we want to hear your nominations for the greatest hoax of all time, or the greatest hoax you ever fell for. Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our first guest this hour in our bureau in New York is Gregory Gilderman. He's a senior editor at The Daily Beast, where he compiled a list of the 10 craziest media hoaxes. Welcome to the program, Gregory.

Mr. GREG GILDERMAN (The Daily Beast): Thank so much.

SHAPRIO: So what do you think makes a great hoax?

Mr. GILDERMAN: What makes a great hoax? Well, the list of hoaxes that we compiled, it's for a video blog. So of course we had to focus on those hoaxes for which there was video�

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GILDERMAN: �that we could find and we did find plenty. A great hoax really is, I think if people are truly duped, as we all were with the balloon, at least for a time, I know I certainly was�

SHAPIRO: And since then there's been another hoax that duped the media, just yesterday. This one involved a group called the Yes Men. Explain what happened there.

Mr. GILDERMAN: Well, that's an interesting one, the Yes Men put on a fake press conference claiming to be the chamber of commerce, claiming to be spokespeople for the chamber of commerce. So that's a sort of higher order of hoax, I would say, something that's kind of in the tradition of something that the Yippies may have done. Abbie Hoffman, something like throwing dollars onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, as Abbie Hoffman did.

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GILDERMAN: So they've an interesting strategy of representing a group that they oppose and pertaining to be spokespersons for that group, giving the point of view that they, the Yes Men, would like that group to have.


Mr. GILDERMAN: That makes no sense whatsoever. For example, when they were on the BBC in 2005 they pretended to be representatives. Or one gentleman pretended to be a representative from Dow Chemical and he apologized for the Bhopal disaster, and of course that didn't - there was no such apology. He was simply duping. He was perpetrating a hoax. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The plant in Bhopal was owned at the time of the accident by Union Carbide, not Dow Chemical.]

SHAPIRO: You have a lot of examples of hoaxes that seem designed to achieve a political end of one sort or another. There was one during the presidential campaign involving a John McCain volunteer who said she was assaulted by an Obama supporter. Tell us about that incident.

Mr. GILDERMAN: Right. Well, this was a woman who pretended that - this was during the 2008 election. Her name was Ashley Todd and this was in Pittsburgh. She claimed that she was mugged at an ATM by an Obama supporter who grabbed her and then carved a backwards B on her cheek. So she�

SHAPIRO: We later learn the B was backward because she carved into her own cheek looking in the mirror.

Mr. GILDERMAN: Right, exactly. And for those who remember Morton Downey, Jr.'s backward swastika on his forehead, that's usually, you know, things are pretty desperate when you're carving things onto your own face. But this woman, I think most people didn't really view this as any kind of sophisticated attempt to manipulate the election. I mean maybe that was one of her motives, but really this was just a very sad and disturbed person.

SHAPIRO: I want to bring in another guest who is with us, Alex Boese. He is with us from his home in San Diego and he is author of �The Museum of Hoaxes.� He also designed the Web site museumofhoaxes.com. Welcome back to the show, Alex.

Mr. ALEX BOESE (Author, �The Museum of Hoaxes�): Hi Ari.

SHORTZ: A lot of these hoaxes that we are talking about seem to have a racial element. And I wonder if you have any ideas about why that might be?

Mr. BOESE: There are an awful lot of hoaxes with that kind of tap into people's racial fears. And hoaxers try to take advantage of people's fears because when people are afraid, I think their mental defenses tend to lower, and so what they are willing to believe, that, you know, simultaneously lowers and so you can slip things past the radar that way.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. You know, you have devoted a substantial part of you life to hoaxes and I wonder what you find so appealing about this notion?

Mr. BOESE: I actually find hoaxes just to be this, an amazing window into human nature, because really you have so many things going on, you have, you know, insight into the nature of human beliefs. You have people desperate to make money or to scam other people. So there's a lot of drama to hoaxes, and it's that drama that I'm really attracted to.

SHAPIRO: I supposed like great fiction, a great hoax can reveal some underlying truth about the society in which it takes place.

Mr. BOESE: I mean, just, you know, take the Balloon Boy hoax, just - you know, it kind of reveals the media can be so easily manipulated in a way by some sensational story. And one of the criticisms people have been having is that, you know, suddenly everybody was focused on this little boy in a balloon. And yet if you think about it, terrible things are happening every day. You know, there is starvation in Africa and people without health care. And yet just one little story attracts the attention of everybody throughout the world.

SHAPIRO: Gregory Gilderman, as you are assembling your list for The Daily Beast of the 10 Best Media Hoaxes Of All Time, did you see any kind of a pattern in the TV coverage of all of these different hoaxes that you were looking at?

Mr. GILDERMAN: Well, I have to say, well, that with some there was an initial credulity, but it's hard to fault because often they are repeating what the hoaxers were reporting to the police. But I have to say that this story was totally compelling visually�

SHAPIRO: The balloon boy story.

Mr. GILDERMAN: Yeah, absolutely, and so the�

SHAPIRO: Just the sight of this silvery balloon floating across the landscape was good television�


SHAPIRO: �whether or not we thought there was a six-year-old boy trapped in.

Mr. GILDERMAN: Right. But the cable news networks were pretty careful. CNN, you know, who we are watching mainly, they were pretty careful to say that they weren't, you know, certain what was happening and there was some skepticism as it was going on. So we actually found that these hoaxes were pretty different. I mean there were - this one was sort of a personal gain by people who arguably, you know, the Heene family have some personal psychological issues, but Mark Sanford saying he was hiking on the Appalachian trail...

SHAPIRO: This is the governor of South Carolina.

Mr. GILDERMAN: Sure, he's trying to conceal something, conceal something, you know, arguably illegal, certainly unethical, and something he wanted to keep from his wife. But you know, Bigfoot, the guy who claimed he found the frozen Bigfoot or the person who claimed he had an autopsy of an alien from Roswell -I don't think people believe that too much, actually. I think even - the report that we showed on Fox News, they were grilling him pretty hard, the guy claimed he found Bigfoot's carcass.

SHAPIRO: But let's listen to the way the Fox News anchors opened that segment about the man reporting to have found Bigfoot and frozen him.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Bigfoot, the bulky and hairy creature who haunts the woods, the stuff of legend, right?

Unidentified Woman: Hmm?

Unidentified Man: Wrong. The sasquatch has been found dead.

Unidentified Woman: Yup. Take a look at this. The sasquatch on ice in the ice box - hold on - wait for it, it's comin'. That's according to one California man.

SHAPIRO: So Alex Boese of The Museum of Hoaxes, that seems to be a really straight-faced buildup where the media was not necessarily duped, but sort of playing along.

Mr. BOESE: The media loves to play along with anything about the paranormal, ghosts, Bigfoot, crypto-zoology. I mean, if you notice, all the shows that are devoted to, like, ghost hunts and stuff, they always play along as if maybe it's real, where, you know, I mean, come on. We know that there's no ghosts. There's no Bigfoot. There's no Nessie. But if you just take that straight, skeptical attitude, it ruins the mystery to it, and the mystery is what everybody loves. And that's why you keep getting these Bigfoot and Nessie hoaxes, because people want to believe.

You know, there's an element that we'd love it if there were some supernatural element out there. It would make life a lot more interesting.

SHAPIRO: Alex, you divide hoaxes into two broad categories. Tell us how you classify these.

Mr. BOESE: Yeah, I - there's one type where the hoaxer has designed the hoax to be exposed so that they try to fool a victim into believing something absolutely ridiculous, and then at some point, they reveal what they've done in a kind of gotcha moment. In other words, they expose somebody's credulity, or they expose somebody's low standards of judgment.

The second kind of hoax, which is what I would place Balloon Boy in, is where the hoaxer actually was just trying to get away with something. He didn't - he or she didn't want to be exposed. In many cases, it's a criminal activity, and so they get caught in a lie.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to a caller. We have Jerry(ph) from O'Fallon, Missouri, on the line. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: How are you?

JERRY: Fine, fine.

SHAPIRO: Go ahead.

JERRY: One of the most memorable hoaxes of my lifetime was the Clifford Irving Howard Hughes autobiography. And I thought at the time, you know, it's pretty clever. I mean, it would be easy, like the Hitler diaries, to you know, fake an autobiography by someone who's dead, but what were the odds that Howard Hughes, who had really not spoken to anyone in 15 years, would actually do a live, telephone news conference to debunk this?

I mean, I'm sure Clifford Irving probably felt pretty safe in trying to perpetrate that without Howard Hughes actually coming out and saying it was a fake.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Jerry.

JERRY: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Alex, Gregory, do either of you classify those among the iconic hoaxes of all time?

Mr. GILDERMAN: Oh, absolutely, I would. I mean, certainly, you know, there's a pretty robust amount of comments after this video blog, and people listed that, as well as Hitler's diaries. And a couple other folks put, you know, the war in Iraq down, but certainly that's one of the all-time greats.

SHAPIRO: Another all-time great, Alex?

Mr. BOESE: I'd have to say the �War of the Worlds� broadcast. I mean, that, to me, is just the iconic hoax that, when you mention hoaxes, that's what everybody seems to know. And, of course, Orson Welles fools thousands of people into believing that New Jersey is being invaded by Martians.

SHAPIRO: But that was not intended to be a hoax. At the top of the broadcast, he said this was fiction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOESE: He did, and yet he - you have to imagine the radio at the time, that people kind of tune in and out, and�

SHAPIRO: Not that they do that today.

Mr. BOESE: Right, exactly. If he didn't intend it to be believed, he wouldn't have done certain things, such as making it exactly like a real - sound like real news broadcast, and then having somebody imitate Roosevelt's voice. Those were the things he was really kind of slammed for afterwards, that, you know, if you really wanted to make it sound like a play, why would you have done that? I think he intended to fool people, yet he never imagined how many people he was going to fool.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about hoaxes this hour. Confess to your most gullible moments or your favorite moment of watching someone else get duped. The number is 1-800-989-8255. Or email talk@npr.org. I'm Ari Shapiro. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. Last week, a silver balloon held us all rapt, until the story popped. Balloon Boy Falcon Heene's ride was a hoax. Later this hour, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz joins us to talk about why the media is so easily duped. But first, we're talking about the greatest hoaxes of all time this hour. What have you fallen for? Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. Or email us at talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm talking with Daily Beast senior editor Gregory Gilderman and hoax historian Alex Boese. And we have an email here from Mark in Bloomington, Minnesota, who writes: What about hoaxes like Piltdown Man, that ended up screwing up science for many years? Are they very common? Alex, are you familiar with the Piltdown Man, the paleontological hoax?

Mr. BOESE: Absolutely. From - I would say that's probably the top scientific fraud of all time. Back in 1912, Charles Dawson in - over in England finds a fossil that is promoted as a discovery of the supposed missing link between man and ape because it had a human skull and an ape-like jaw. And it wasn't really until the 1950s that it was fully debunked as a hoax.

SHAPIRO: More than 40 years after the initial report.

Mr. BOESE: Forty years, which did incredible damage to a lot of scientists' careers who had spent years studying this thing that just turned out to be an absolute waste of time for them.

SHAPIRO: There was another more recent scientific hoax in the �90s about an academic paper that was written in jest but published in seriousness.

Mr. BOESE: Right. This is the Sokal hoax by physicist Alan Sokal, who - he submitted an article to a humanities journal called the Social Text, in which the topic of his article was the transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity, which sounds really impressive, and the article was full of all kinds of jargon. But when it boiled down to it, what he was arguing was that gravity was just a capitalist fiction, and someday, science would be freed from this fiction. And�

SHAPIRO: An academic journal published this paper as if it were a real scientific document, thereby, I guess, reflecting something about society, sort of in the way we talked before about great fiction and hoaxes both saying something about the world they operate in.

Mr. BOESE: Right. Yeah, he claimed - yeah. He said it showed the low standards of rigor in the humanities, and this is another one of those gotcha hoaxes, where he later exposed what he had done.

Mr. GILDERMAN: You know, for those of us who were undergraduates who studied Derrida and Foucault, you know, we can certainly understand how that one, you know, was published. This stuff made absolutely no sense to us whatsoever, so�

SHAPIRO: Let's go to another call.

Mr. GILDERMAN: �which I think is what he was trying to poke fun of.

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BOESE: Right.

SHAPIRO: We have Laurie from Grand Blanc, Michigan, on the line. Go ahead, Laurie.

LAURIE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.


LAURIE: This happened - I'm not really sure on the date or the year, but I believe it was about 2002 or 2003, and it occurred in Madison, Wisconsin, at the university. A girl had planned her own disappearance, per se, and had -because of - they said she was seeking attention from her boyfriend, and for many days was missing. And it became a media frenzy.

SHAPIRO: This seems to be a whole category of hoaxes, whether it's the runaway bride or this University of Wisconsin student you're describing, people who the media come to believe are missing when, in fact, they're really not.

LAURIE: And I remember just listening to the radio, just being gravitated to the story because my daughter, my eldest daughter, was a student there at the time. And we were actually living in Madison, and I remember I had seen her for lunch during one of the days when this girl was missing and driving back home and hearing on the radio that she had been found. It was, like, oh, you just felt, like, incredible relief. And then it came out days later, after everything started being pieced together, that she had actually planned everything, and it was just - you just felt - I felt so stupid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call.

LAURIE: So taken.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Laurie.

LAURIE: Sure. Uh-huh.

SHAPIRO: Gregory and Alex, it strikes me that we're getting several calls and emails about a whole category of hoaxes as entertainment, ranging from the prime minister of France calling Sarah Palin, when, in fact, it was some Canadian radio talk-show host, to the whole �Borat� and �Bruno� series, the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen duping people. It seems to be a popular form of entertainment nowadays.

Mr. BOESE: Well, I would say it's actually quite - and I think it traces back to P.T. Barnum in the 19th century, who discovered that hoaxes can entertain people, and he became a multimillionaire by devising bizarre hoaxes such as the Fiji mermaid, that people kind of knew they were hoaxes, but they were entertained by them, anyway. And in a way, I mean, he started the whole tradition of - you know, he's kind of the father of advertising and the father of the modern entertainment industry because of that.

Mr. GILDERMAN: Right. And part of, I think, what's successful about what Sacha Baron Cohen does is that often, you know, the people he's knocking down a few pegs, you don't feel so sorry for that Sacha Baron Cohen, as the perpetrator of the hoax, becomes the object of your derision and disgust. But, you know, it's kind of fun to see a major political figure like a Sarah Palin made fun of.

SHAPIRO: We've been talking with Alex Boese. He joined us from his home in San Diego, and he's author of �The Museum of Hoaxes,� and he designed the Web site museumofhoaxes.com. Thanks for joining us, Alex.

Mr. BOESE: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And Greg Gilderman joined us from our bureau in New York. He's senior editor at The Daily Beast, where he compiled the 10 craziest media hoaxes, and you can see those at our Web site, npr.org. Thanks, Gregory.

Mr. GILDERMAN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And now we're joined by Howard Kurtz from the offices of the Washington Post. He is the Post's media correspondent, and he also hosts CNN's program �Reliable Sources.� Welcome back to the show, Howard.

Mr. HOWARD KURTZ (Media Reporter, Washington Post; Host, �Reliable Sources�): Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: We were just talking with Gregory Gilderman, who compiled one instance after another of the news media being duped. Why do they, we, keep falling for this?

Mr. KURTZ: Well, we do look like morons on occasion, I must confess.

SHAPIRO: On occasion?

Mr. KURTZ: But look - well, on occasion. I mean, it does seem like this happens more often than it used to just a few short years ago. Look, people who want to fool journalists have learned what the weak spot is in the media defense system, and it's live cable television, because you're watching these stories unfold and because the default setting seems to be throw up the pictures on the air - at least if they're sexy enough - and we'll try to gather the facts in the meantime.

We saw that, of course, most dramatically with the balloon story. People have learned how to do that, whereas it's, I think, a little harder - not impossible - but a little harder to fool a newspaper, which has, say, eight or nine or 10 hours to assemble a story and actually check it out.

SHAPIRO: You often write about how politicians manipulate the media to achieve their ends. The Balloon Boy instance seems like one good example of lay people, civilians, learning to manipulate the media in exactly the same way.

Mr. KURTZ: Although I don't know that I'd call Richard Heene a complete civilian in this regard, since he had been on �Wife Swap� and clearly was sort of - had this very strong urge to be on television again. Boy, he got his wish, although not perhaps in the way that he had imagined.

But, you know, he obviously was clever enough to figure out that if he concocted this story and he sent this balloon up in the air, and, you know, it was - the pictures were very compelling, that everybody in the world would go live with it.

Now, I'm not going to come down too hard on the cable networks in this particular instance. I have criticized them for falling for the runaway bride story and numerous other instances where we kind of shot first and asked questions later. But the authorities in Colorado were taking this seriously. They had what they considered to be a criminal report that there was or might be a kid aboard, and I've got to tell you, I was in two different offices during those two heart-wrenching hours, and everybody was gathered around the TV watching this.

It would have been awfully hard for any producer, for any television executive to say, you know what? We don't have all the facts here. Let's just breakaway and we'll come back when we've got this nailed down. So I cut them a little slack during those two hours, although not afterward.

SHAPIRO: Right. So afterward, the balloon landed, the boy was not in it and rather than saying hey, what these people want is media attention, let's go someplace else, everyone was fighting to have the family on the air.

Mr. KURTZ: Especially once we learned - because it was a couple more hours before we learned, you know, had the kid fallen out, where was he, that he had never left the house in Colorado. At that point, you know, you could just hear the journalistic adrenaline flowing because we had had what seemed to be a dramatic kind of happy-ending story because nobody was killed. And now it was like, why did they do this? What's their motivation? Let's send bookers to their home. And so suddenly, you know, a few hours after supposedly learning that their six-year-old son was alive, the Heene family is sitting in front of the cameras, first on �Larry King Live� and then, you know, what was 5 o'clock in the morning Colorado time the next morning doing the CBS, ABC, NBC.

And the most sickening thing here - and I'm sure most of your listeners have seen this - was watching this poor kid, who obviously had been put up to this by the parents, you know, throw up first on �Good Morning America� and then on the �Today Show.� I mean, you couldn't ask for a more dramatic rendering of why this was wrong, and it made me feel sick to my stomach that all these shows were rushing to exploit this story when it was no longer life-and-death story. It was just a story about weird people who do weird things.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a caller. We have Anne(ph) from eastern Massachusetts on the phone. Hi, Anne.

ANNE (Caller): Hi. I wanted to get your guest's take on the Charles Stuart hoax in Boston, which actually took place a little bit before on the explosion of cable news. In 1990, Charles Stuart called state police on his car phone and said he and his pregnant wife had been shot - robbed and shot by an unidentified black man who was waiting for them in their car.

And come to find out, you know, the whole thing was a hoax, even though all of Boston kind of shut down as people looked for this unidentified black man. And then six weeks later Charles Stuart jumped to his death after he found out his brother was going to go to police and talk about his complicity in this particular event. So�

SHAPIRO: Howard Kurtz, you're familiar with this case. It sounds like�

Mr. KURTZ: I happen to be familiar with it, because it was featured in one of the books I've written. And so that was very different, because that story was driven by the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. It was, I mean, there was still CNN, but it was not the era of local tabloid crime stories going national, as is so common today - another thing I'm critical of, by the way.

But there, the difference between this and the balloon saga, for example, is that you had the police and you had prosecutors leaking night and day, it seemed like, the notion that there was some unidentified black man who had killed this poor woman who - and that was the account that Charles Stuart had given, as well.

And so all the stories that were written came from unnamed sources from the authorities and - who obviously were trying to show that they were on the case, they were doing their job. And that just like, perhaps, the Richard Jule incident, the Atlanta Olympics bombing in 1996, shows that another flaw in the journalistic system is being too willing to take these leaks from police, detectives and prosecutors who aren't willing - to go on the record and to publish them almost as if they were fact and sometimes to blacken the reputations of people involved who may, in some instances, turn out to be innocent.

SHAPIRO: Anne, thanks for the call.

ANNE: Yes, absolutely. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: You know, Howard Kurtz, it occurs to me, talking about the Charles Stuart story, there was a similar case in South Carolina. Susan Smith was a woman who said that her kids had been abducted by a black man, and it later turned out she had drowned them. Are the media too quick to believe stories about black men run wild? It seems to be a theme in so many of these hoaxes.

Mr. KURTZ: I think so. I think there's a racial aspect here. In the case of the runaway bride, Jennifer Wilbanks, she said she had been abducted by a couple of Hispanic guys. That turned out to be completely fictional. She was just ducking out of her own wedding. But in those cases, unlike when you have, you know, the undeniable drama of a helium balloon racing across the sky at 10,000 feet, there was no compelling reason for any news organization to run with an unsubstantiated report about black guys and Hispanic guys or white guys, for that matter, being involved in some alleged crime without any evidence, without any police spokesman confirming it on the record, without any arrest warrant, without any search warrant.

And it just shows, you know, it's a hypercompetitive business. Everybody wants to be first. It's a juicy story. And so, in too many instances, somebody goes with it and the rest of the pack follows because, well, you know, it was in the Boston Globe. It must be true. And there, I think, you know, holding off until we have something confirmed would be the wiser course. But unfortunately, that's not always the case.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about the greatest hoaxes of all time. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and CNN, we have seen in the last few years Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites proliferating. Do you think it makes hoaxes thrive, or do you think that it extinguishes them more quickly?

Mr. KURTZ: That is an interesting question. I'm a big Twitter fan, and I learn a lot from Twitter and I offer my thoughts on there in 140 characters or less. And certainly, I have seen rumors spread on Twitter, or just things that were unconfirmed about the Iranian street demonstrations and otherwise. So you have to take it for what it is. But it does tell you something about 21st century communications that even if something doesn't make it to cable news or the newspapers or even the blogs, anybody can dash off a message and have it read by other people on Twitter.

And sometimes you have to be cautious at the same time. I've seen instances where people have used Twitter - and social networking services like it, Facebook and others - to knock down reports that the media may have floated because they live in the area and they may know something about it. So it can be a bit of a double-edged sword.

SHAPIRO: And speaking of the cable news networks, you've been covering the media for the Post since 1990. And in that time, the cable news networks have really risen to prominence. What impact do you see their presence as having on the coverage of these kinds of bogus stories?

Mr. KURTZ: Well, I mean, they do some good things, and it's nice to - I mean, cable today focuses kind of as a national wire service. All journalists, as well as the viewers, get to follow stories in real time, and that can be very valuable. But when it comes to stories that are questionable or just outright hoaxes and we don't know it at the time, there's no question in my mind that it just sort of speeds everything up, and they have a hair trigger. You know, in a perfectly legitimate instance, there'll be a fire somewhere or a car chase.

You know, and these car chases are real. We're not making them up, right? But it seems like, you know, Fox goes to it and MSNBC goes to it, maybe CNN goes to it. And suddenly, you know, no matter what else is going on in the world, you've got three cable news networks following some police car in L.A. chasing some bad guy, and then we never hear anything about it again. It's just good video. And that's the thing, I think - I understand television. I understand -the temptations of good video. But just because the pictures are dramatic doesn't mean that it's journalism. If you haven't checked it out, viewers -having been through a few of these things by now - should learn that they're seeing the raw process, the sausage-making aspect of journalism, not seeing the finished product.

CONAN: Let's take one last call. This is Doug in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hi, Doug.

DOUG (Caller): Hi. How are you doing? My - it's a quick question. So what's the different between a hoax and what I like to think of as political hacktivism(ph)? Something like the Bureau of Inverse Technology, etoy(ph) or the recently reported story on the Yes Man and the Chamber of Commerce. I think it's not a sense of self aggrandizement, which is seen as a (unintelligible), but more along the lines of just trying to get a political ideology forward that's going to change people's minds, or at least have people take another look at something that might be more (unintelligible). I don't know. Thanks.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the question, Doug. Howard Kurtz, what do you think?

Mr. KURTZ: I think the only difference between those genres(ph) is the motivation of the people involved. Some people may be doing it just as prank. Some people - like apparently, Richard Heene - may be doing it for - to build enough publicity that he gets on yet another reality television show. Others may be doing it very much to drive a political point, although I've always been skeptical. I mean, if it's going to be exposed as a hoax often within 24 hours anyway, how much of a political point are you scoring?

From the journalist point of view, it doesn't particularly matter what the motivation is, we are constantly in danger of being used by running with these stories that turn, on closer inspection, be completely fake.

SHAPIRO: Howard Kurtz joined us from the offices of the Washington Post. He's the media reporter of the Post and host of CNN's �Reliable Sources.� Thanks, Howard.

Mr. KURTZ: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Coming up: Lenny Kravitz, here in 3A. Do I need to tell you to stay with us?

I'm Ari Shapiro. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Correction Oct. 21, 2009

In our conversation about media hoaxes, a guest referred to the Bhopal chemical disaster and said the company that owned the plant was Dow Chemical. That is incorrect. The plant in Bhopal was owned at the time of the accident by Union Carbide.