Filed under: Media Pranks
Submitted by Raul Minchinela:
A Spanish TV channel created a prank and openly showed that biased, unchecked, fill-the-void information is the common currency for Spain’s broadcast networks. This is a veritable course on media pranking — creating and perpetrating a hoax, then documenting it and analyzing what happened on TV. And it has inspired more of the same. The prank as media commentary has taken the media. Welcome to Spain.
The goal of media pranks is to show how information is manipulated by leaking false news into newscasts that is more revealing than the actual truth. In creating a news story that should exist, we see that the media do not listen to reality, but rather expect specific things to happen according to a pre-determined structure. Anything that does not fit that mold is simply not heard and, consequently, not shown on TV.
The second phase of a media prank invites, and expects, media outlets to confess that the leaked prank is in fact false news — that they broadcasted the material not because it was real, but because it “fit” what was expected.
With that in mind, the perfect horizon in the “media prank world” would be an actual TV show that created unbiased media pranks. Their rival channels would fall for them, and then the TV show would create an hour-long special about how every top-watched program broadcasted false news, asking them to publicly admit that it was all a prank. In that perfect world, that portion of the show providing commentary about the TV’s biased perspective of the world, including the lies and the unchecked information and the sensationalist let-the-s**t-hit-the-fan attitude, would be presented by a comedian with a sharp-tongue.
Guess what? This happened in Spain on May 11, 2007. All of it.
1- Celebrity takedown
First we have to make clear that celebrity shows are big in Spain. Real big. Celebrity programs fill more than half of prime-time television, the other part consisting of blockbuster movies and TV series. Celebs are much bigger than sports, comedy or – let’s have a laugh here – documentaries. Apart from the usual amount of celebrities (actors, singers, rich people, politicians, TV hosts, etc.), the main TV time-filler in Spain is people who went to bed with an actual celebrity. This is celebrity in itself.
Celebrity TV is “broadcaster paradise”, because you don’t need celebrities onstage and you don’t need actual news. You can make it up as you go from a mix of American celebrity magazines from the 50’s and Weekly World News. It goes to heights that would amaze even a passive viewer. To present just one example: One of the most watched TV shows reported on live TV that a well-known actor had entered a clinic for drug rehabilitation. As the program progressed, they received a live telephone call from the actor himself. He told the presenter that he was watching the show at home. He wondered where this news had come from? The host asked, “You have not been to a clinic and are just at home with the family? That is very good to know. We are happy to hear that.” And, without any explanation or apology, he just went on to other “news”.
Recent journalistic lies on prime-time TV include resurrecting dead people — we had two solid months of a comeback from the grave by the daughter of a known Italian singer, only to find out that, as was to be expected, the sighting was false which dashed the singer’s hopes, redefining the term low-blow. The journalist, Lidia Lozano, keeps appearing regularly on various TV celebrity programs as if nothing happened. After all, millions of viewers had seen the station advertisements during this period. As you see, there are no holds barred.
Some would argue that celebrity news is a world apart and shouldn’t even be considered information, especially after learning of cases such as these. But the success of celebrity programs has even affected serious newscasts, which also present unchecked news and outright lies, as long as they fit with a general consensus of “how things should be”.
2- Mocking as a weekly mission
The strangest thing about Spanish TV is that there are small mutations that are completely unexpected. For example, there is a show on local TV in Barcelona which actually analyzes and comments on television, pointing out cases of biased and even shameful journalism. It is hosted by a newspaper TV critic, who is himself also seriously biased. Partial or not, the existence of a regular program that actually reveals the tricks of TV newscasts that get you to think in certain ways, is amazing. The show deals with politics and the economy, which makes it a very strange gem. Even Spanish media moguls have confessed that they have never seen anything like it before, mainly because media moguls tend to live in Madrid and this show is broadcast in Barcelona city and not much farther.
This kind of show on national TV is unthinkable right now. A program that openly shows the tricks of politics and economic interests that affect public opinion cannot be broadcast nationwide. But there is a way of speaking of TV journalism without speaking about serious matters — to talk, not about politics, but about how news is determined to be news and shown to the public, by making a national comedy TV show commenting on the wrongful ways of the most watched TV shows.
In comes La Sexta (the sixth channel) a newly-formed national network which does not cover the whole country but has a widespread audience. The channel is focused on comedy, but not having much luck at the moment. The best show on their schedule, both in freshness and in humor, is Se lo que hicisteis la última semana (I know what you did last week), which throughout the year has commented weekly on Spanish celebrity TV. The show has become so popular that it has turned into a daily program.
3- The scoop of a generation
These days, celebrity journalists in Spain are doubly lucky because the scoop of a generation, the Malaya Operation, has just blown up. Corruption in urban redevelopment sent the mayor of a city frequented by celebrities such as Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, to prison. He himself is the lover of a well-known singer who is the widow of a dead bullfighter. The branches of the story reach every conceivable celebrity level — politicians, economic moguls, singers, bullfighters, football players, actors — you name it. Every turn of the story (for example, politicians who have won the lottery dozens of times during the same year, and who have Miró originals hanging in the bathroom) is more amazing than the one before.
For TV networks, every piece of information that has anything to do with the Malaya Operation is immediately worth many minutes of national coverage. This has gone on for so long that there is now not enough news about the Malaya Operation to fill the time the networks have dedicated to it. This trend has reached obnoxious extremes, so the show Se lo que… resolved to create false irrelevant news and send it via email to several programs and news agencies.
4- Hitting the right keys
Describing how the prank hit the right notes is very tricky because it involves the top news of Spain for the last month. The most important figure is ETA bomber José Ignacio de Juana Chaos (I’m not kidding: a cold blooded killer really called Chaos), who after a brief stay in prison for killing 25 people was tried again for writing an article that included threats. His sentence was far too big for just writing an article, but this was due to enormous public pressure once people realized how short his punishment had been for the original crimes. To protest the unprecedented condemnation, Chaos started a hunger strike that sparked a huge debate.
Months after Chaos’ hunger strike, the mayor of Marbella, Julian Muñoz, the most fashionable of the suspects of the Malaya Operation, being the fiancé of folk icon Isabel Pantoja, himself started a hunger strike, to make the point that major players who pocket millions of dollars of public money should be treated better than terrorist bombers. Every part of the Malaya Operation was top news, and this particular part was even bigger.
So Se lo que… decided to set up a false Web site, purposely poor, that included only a press photo of Mayor Muñoz and text that said, “In solidarity with the mayor, join us in a voluntary hunger strike next Saturday”.
The website, which has since been modified, was put up on a Wednesday, appeared everywhere on Thursday, and Se lo que… broadcast a TV Special on the experience on Friday. Here’s the video in two parts:
Here are some translations from the videos:
Part 1, 4:00-4:16: “The goal was to demonstrate that any piece of bullshit that appears with the names Isabel Pantoja or Julian Muñoz is considered TV news because programs have absolutely nothing to talk about, and also that TV shows do not care if what they are saying is true or not. Anything goes in order to fill five more minutes”. After that, they list the media channels that fell for the prank, starting with Europa Press (the most preeminent celebrity show’s press agency). The morning show at Antena 3 network fell for the Web site and ironically called it “the work of a wiseguy”; Angel Martin answered saying “If there is a wise one, it is definitely not sitting on your sofa”.
Part 1, 7:20-7:25: The morning show at the state-owned TVE also fell for it. One of the hosts used to be a policeman, thus prankster Angel Martin asserted that he was: “Some shitty cop”.
Part 1, 9:10-9:16: The list goes on, while the prankster remarks “They always say, ‘We have discovered’. But you have found nothing! We emailed it to you!”
Part 2, 0:55-1:08: and “If you think that something is a joke, you don’t talk about it. You don’t open a newscast saying ‘Today someone telephoned a school saying there was a bomb. We guess it was a joke.’ No, you don’t do that. You look into the story and find out if something is true.”
Part 2, 1:10-1:24: After showing that the most watched show of this type also swallowed the bait, the hosts celebrate to the song We are the Champions by Queen at 2:35-2:43.
The following week, on May 16th, the successful late night show Buenafuente, a washed-down Letterman Show clone, decided to do a prank themselves. They sent an actor to a concert with a hidden camera on his chest. He claimed he was selling stickers to collect money for the freedom of Isabel Pantoja. Most of the TV anchors at the concert fell for it. Here’s the video. The media coverage starts at 2:33.
As you can see, pranking has taken Spain by storm, particularly inspired by Angel Martin, host of Se lo que hicisteis la última semana.
This story caught my attention because during the term of President Jose Maria Aznar (who now works for Rupert Murdoch), newscasts were seriously compromised. The government controlled the news with an iron hand, to the point of even denying the existence of a national strike, during which the President had to use police to distribute newspapers to create the appearance of “normality”. This established a media which parrots official messages without checking their veracity. Right now in Spain, blog sites are more reliable than newscasts for reporting on and counting the size of demonstrations.
This has created a receptive climate for alternative media commentary, especially from blogs (such as malaprensa.com which denounces unchecked news, and periodismoincendiario.com which lists news designed to enrage public opinion). Now the media has finally decided to comment openly about itself, particularly television media, and they are resorting to prank techniques, giving ArtofthePrank.com an opportunity to defend pranking as a real media analysis tool.
Raul Minchinela is an industrial engineer who works at a TV production company where he has developed and edited multimedia events throughout Europe. He also freelances creating live visual effects for cinema. In the nineties he created and wrote “Contracultura”, the first spanish webzine on sub- and mass-media culture. His interviews of comic artists were included in the book “Stories for survivors: comic and mass culture in the eighties” (Argentina, 1996). His articles have appeared in several publications, from Spanish and Argentinian newspapers to under-the-counter magazines. He writes regularly on his personal blog http://norecomendable.blogspot.com and some commercial blogs as well (Compradicción.com and Decoesfera.com).