Filed under: Art Pranks, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Pranksters
The Fine Art of Responsible Journalism
2 February 2009
A Czech paper’s childish prank on the Entropa hoaxer makes a mockery of press freedom.
By now, most of Europe (if not the world) has heard of David Cerny, the Prague prankster who pulled a fast one on the Czech government. Instead of creating a sedate piece of art to hang in one of the European Union’s main buildings in Brussels – highlighting the current Czech presidency – Cerny chose to parody sensitive stereotypes of each of the EU’s member states. And not only that: he concocted a massive hoax, a “mystification” as the Czechs call it. The supposed contributors to the Entropa installation from each EU country were mere creations, as Cerny and a couple of friends had done all the work, from the sculptures to the ludicrous artist bios.
Then it was the turn of the Czech Republic’s leading daily newspaper, Mlada fronta Dnes, to get in on the fun, as the paper ran a mock interview with Cerny, making up quotes from the artist and showing a disturbing propensity to disregard journalistic ethics. As the highest-circulation “serious” newspaper, Mlada fronta is something of a bellwether for the state of the Czech media. This latest episode is not encouraging on that front.
On the front page of its 24 January weekend supplement, the paper ran what was indicated as an interview with Cerny, accompanied by a large photo of the artist under the headline, “David Cerny: I only pretended to be embarrassed.” In contrast to Cerny’s public statements showing regret for offending some countries and Czech officials, the article purported to show that he was living it up with all the attention and that he had agreed to make an apology only in return for promises from Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra of future cooperation.
Cerny was also quoted as saying that he would make quite a bundle off the sculpture, and that Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek had told him that, privately, he was laughing at the artist’s rendering along with everyone else in Brussels.
Only at the very end of the article, on Page 2, did the reader learn that the author of the “interview,” Milan Eisenhammer, had been “inspired by the working methods of David Cerny” and had decided to combine reality and fiction. In a phrase that any journalist should be ashamed to pen, Eisenhammer wrote: “The answers are those that the author either gave or at least could have given.”
After Cerny called to complain that everything written in the article was untrue, Mlada fronta parried with the defense that it had only used an approach similar to the artist’s when he fabricated his alleged co-creators. “David Cerny said that he wanted to test what kind of sense of humor Europe has, and we wanted to see what kind of sense of humor … David Cerny has,” editor in chief Robert Casensky wrote.
NOT A PIECE OF ART
The escapade might have been excused as a sophomoric bit of fun – along the lines of fake April Fool’s Day news stories – where it not for the potential damage done to Cerny’s reputation and that of Vondra, both of whom came off looking badly to those who didn’t bother to read to the end of the story. It was also something of a slap in the face to those who thought the newspaper should tread very carefully after a story in September that already had Mlada fronta on shaky ethical grounds.
At the time, a rebel within the governing Civic Democratic Party, Vladimir Tlusty, connived with journalists from the paper and TV Nova, the country’s most popular television station, in an attempt to test the moral scruples of the prime minister and his allies. The scheme involved Tlusty allowing himself to be photographed in a hot tub with a young woman and the journalists then trying to offer these photographs to people around Topolanek to see if the prime minister would bite and attempt to gain advantage over his rebellious colleague with the supposedly compromising snapshots. (While those close to the prime minister refused to take the bait, a young parliamentary deputy did and ended up resigning after the scandal broke.)
Nova and Mlada fronta received much criticism for using such undercover methods for a story of debatable public importance, and even more questionably, acting in the service of one political grouping to the detriment of another. They remained unrepentant.
It’s not that Mlada fronta has no idea of the real value of undercover reporting. Over the past two years, the newspaper has, for example, repeatedly sent reporters under assumed identities into medical institutions to investigate the level of care. On one occasion, a female reporter pretending to have a stomach problem visited emergency rooms around the country, recording doctors’ and nurses’ (often uncaring) responses. More recently, another reporter got himself hired as an orderly in a long-term care institution and uncovered neglect and fabricated medical reports. Both stories prompted dozens of letters to the editor from people who had witnessed similar treatment and sparked an important public discussion about medical workers’ “bedside manner.”
Newspapers, however, shouldn’t be in the business of creating hoaxes and political intrigues just for the sake of attracting public attention and selling a few more copies. Cerny, in his blunt style, perhaps put it best. He may not be a professor of journalism ethics, but his main reproach to the paper was spot on: “You aren’t a piece of art, you are a newspaper.”