Filed under: Publicity Stunts
Editor’s note: Media literacy alert!
Really Cute, but Totally Faked
by Dave Itzkoff
New York Times
February 26, 2013
It seemed too adorable to be fake, but it was too good to be true.
On Sept. 19 a 30-second video appeared on YouTube, depicting a baby goat that had become stuck in the pond of a petting zoo and that was heroically rescued with a helpful nudge from a pig that swam out to it.
Within hours the video had been posted around the Web; it had been shared with the Twitter followers of Time magazine and Ellen DeGeneres; and it had been broadcast on NBC’s “Today” show and its “Nightly News” program, ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Fox News, where the “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade said of it, “You couldn’t do this at Warner Brothers as a cartoon and make it seem more realistic.”
But the video was thoroughly staged. It was created for a new Comedy Central series, “Nathan for You,” with the help of some 20 crew members, including animal trainers, scuba divers and humane officers, and required the fabrication of a plastic track to guide the pig to the goat (which was never in jeopardy).
Video by jebdogrpm
That a faked video had been so rapidly disseminated by unskeptical news outlets was both surprising and dispiritingly familiar to professional experts on the news media.
“It really is embarrassing for the journalists who stumbled upon this and decided to promote it or share it with their audience,” said Kelly McBride, the senior faculty for ethics, reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute. “It’s almost a form of malpractice.”
But to the creators of the video — which has since been viewed more than seven million times — the news reports are the unexpected if felicitous results of a social experiment in which they say they were not aspiring to this level of deceit.
“If we were trying to pull an elaborate hoax on the news, I think we could have pushed further,” said Nathan Fielder, the star of “Nathan for You.” “But we weren’t. We found it interesting that people were sharing it without us saying anything.”
On “Nathan for You,” a documentary-style series that will have its premiere on Thursday, Mr. Fielder, 29, a deadpan and seemingly naïve comedian, helps small businesses execute outrageous marketing stunts devised by him and his producers.
For the second episode Mr. Fielder offered his services to a petting farm in Oak Glen, Calif., where he made a video intended to turn one of its animals into a celebrity.
However, his plan to record an adorable scene of cross-species gallantry hit several snags: his chosen pig would not go in the pond and had to be replaced with a trained animal, and a track had to be built to guide it to the goat. (Meanwhile, the goat became so comfortable in the water that anguished bleats had to be dubbed in later.)
Footage provided by Comedy Central demonstrates how they produced a viral video sensation:
After making his crew members sign nondisclosure agreements, Mr. Fielder uploaded his video to YouTube one evening under the pseudonym “jebdogrpm” and gave it a brief, ungrammatical description: “Pig saves goat who’s foot was stuck underwater at petting zoo,” it read. “Simply amazing.”
By the following morning Mr. Fielder, who said he did not make any additional efforts to promote the video online or through social networks, found it posted on sites like Gawker and Reddit. He also started receiving requests through his YouTube account from television programs that wanted to show his video. In short messages to producers of “Good Morning America” and Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show, “Anderson Live” — neither of whom asked how the video was made — Mr. Fielder gave them permission to broadcast it but offered no other details about it.
When the video was played on “Good Morning America,” Elizabeth Vargas tried to ask her fellow presenters how the pig had freed the goat, but she was met with laughter. “Every day with Elizabeth, it’s like, ‘How did this happen?’ ” replied the weather anchor Sam Champion.
Mr. Fielder stopped responding to other messages, including what he said were at least six “fairly persistent” requests from NBC.
That did not dissuade NBC from showing the video on its “Nightly News,” with an introduction from the anchor Brian Williams, who said he and his colleagues felt “duty-bound to pass this on.” (Mr. Williams added that “we have no way of knowing if it’s real.”)
A statement from NBC News said: “This was presented as a video that had been making the rounds on the Internet — and as Brian clearly stated, its authenticity couldn’t be verified. We treated it for exactly what it was: an aside, a fun moment, the kind of ‘What’s going on here?’ picture that is the coin of the realm on social media.”
Representatives for ABC and Fox News did not immediately comment on Tuesday in response to inquiries.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fielder and his producers spoke with Comedy Central executives about the unexpected popularity of the video. There were discussions about whether Mr. Fielder or a confederate should give interviews to help promote it (without quite addressing its authenticity), but this plan was not pursued.
“We made a collective decision to not turn it into something else, because it wasn’t about pranking the news media,” said Kent Alterman, Comedy Central’s president for content development and original programming. “It didn’t seem like anyone was being harmed in this case.”
Ms. McBride of the Poynter Institute said Comedy Central had “a really low level of responsibility” to tell the truth, but that the network’s obligation “pales in comparison to the obligation of journalists who vet information, because the journalists have made a promise to their audience that they will tell the truth.”
“When there’s so many nuggets of raw, unfiltered information out there,” Ms. McBride said, “our job increasingly becomes to find the most meaningful ones and tell the story behind it.”
Though Mr. Williams of NBC had offered his caveat that he did not know if the video was real, Ms. McBride said this was not sufficient.
“Go find something cute that is real,” she said.
Mr. Fielder was reluctant to draw any larger conclusions from this incident, but he said he was certain he had not done anything wrong.
“I definitely don’t think I have the same ethical responsibility as the news,” he said. “And I definitely don’t see anything wrong, ethically, with posting a video on YouTube that is presented as something it’s not.”
Asked if the media had done its due diligence before helping to circulate his video, Mr. Fielder responded after some hesitation.
“When I watch the news,” he said, “I assume that what I’m seeing, there has been some research done.”