The Eisenstadt Hoax:A Real-life Example of a "Fake Fake"

There is a minor controversy bouncing around right now on the internet, and I'd like to do what I can to set the story straight. The controversy involves two incidents:

  1. The day after the U.S. presidential election, Fox News reporter Carl Cameron gave an interview with Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly. During the interview, Cameron said that McCain's advisors had told him about their unhappiness with Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential running mate. Citing anonymous sources within the McCain campaign, Cameron recited a litany of complaints, including their claim that Palin was so ignorant she didn't know Africa was a continent.
  2. A blogger who calls himself "Martin Eisenstadt" stated a few days ago that he was the anonymous source for Cameron's story. Earlier today, however, the New York Times reported that "Martin Eisenstadt doesn't exist. His blog does, but it's a put-on. The think tank where he is a senior fellow -- the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy -- is just a Web site. The TV clips of him on YouTube are fakes. And the claim of credit for the Africa anecdote is just the latest ruse by Eisenstadt, who turns out to be a very elaborate hoax that has been going on for months."

Dumber than Plumber

As the New York Times noted near the bottom of its story exposing Martin Eisenstadt, we were among the first people to label Eisenstadt a hoax several months ago, in our SourceWatch article about him. The main credit for exposing the hoax, however, properly belongs to blogger William K. Wolfrum, who became incensed after discovering that he had been duped in one of Eisenstadt's earlier ruses and doggedly set about investigating and dissecting the network of online pseudonyms and websites through which Eisenstadt created his false identity. It was Wolfrum who first called the hoax to our attention, for which we are grateful.

Last month, I exposed one of Eisenstadt's previous hoaxes, in which he attempted to promote a smear aimed at Samuel Joe Wurzelbacher ("Joe the plumber"), whose verbal confrontation with Barack Obama had become the centerpiece of the McCain campaign's effort to paint Obama as a socialist who wants to raise everyone's taxes. Eisenstadt falsely claimed that Wurzelbacher had hidden connections to both the McCain campaign and to "Charles Keating of the Keating 5 scandal." Some liberal bloggers actually fell for this fabrication and repeated it for a day or two before realizing they had been snookered. In exposing the hoax, I stated then that, "In all likelihood, 'Martin Eisenstadt' is some kind of leftist prankster who sees his hoax as a satire."

The New York Times story revealed that the Eisenstadt hoax is the work of two people, filmmakers Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin. After the Times story appeared, they have given interviews to Variety magazine, and BBC, in which they confirmed that their intent was social satire and discussed the details of their fabrication. Mirvish explained that Carl Cameron's story about Sarah Palin and Africa "was kind of put out there a few days after the election. ... We had established this ... hoax character of Martin Eisenstadt as a McCain advisor, specifically on foreign policy issues. Well, it was like a giant volleyball that had been just tossed up for us to play. So we just said, well okay, we'll take credit for it. Yeah, sure, we were the ones who told Fox News that Sarah didn't know where Africa was."

"Can I just clarify?" the interviewer asked. "So, your hoax blogger, Martin Eisenstadt and this supposed McCain policy advisor, he wasn't responsible for this story. As in, the story exists, it may well be entirely genuine."

"Exactly," Mirvish replied. "Yes. It's completely absurd, but it may actually be true."

The Fake Fake

Having watched the Eisenstadt hoax unfold, I have to say that I think the hoaxsters have been profoundly unethical. I don't lack a sense of humor, and I see the point that they are trying to make about the media's willingness to report (and the public's willingness to believe) unverified falsehoods. In the past, there have been a few satirical hoaxes that I actually found genuinely entertaining. American prankster Joey Skaggs, for example, has perpetrated a number of clever pranks on the media. In one memorable prank, he got ABC to run with a story on an a supposed dog brothel that he advertised as a "cathouse for dogs." In another, conducted during the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, Skaggs got a number of reporters to bite when he posed as a computer scientist with a program that could analyze video footage of accused criminals and determine whether they were guilty.

Critical differences, however, distinguish Skaggs and his light-hearted spoofs from the hoax perpetrated by Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin. In the end, Skaggs has made sure to let everyone in on his jokes. This has not been the case with the Eisenstadt hoax. It continues even now on its website, even after it has been exposed in the pages of the New York Times. The Eisenstadt hoax has been ongoing now for more than six months and has injected a significant amount of noise and confusion into American political discourse -- confusion that is obvious in the number of people who still misunderstood basic facts about the hoax, even after it has been repeatedly exposed.

Some people -- conservative bloggers in particular -- have seemed especially quick to jump on the hoax as proof that Sarah Palin is an unfairly maligned victim, writing opinion pieces complaining about "Journalistic Recklessness." A few, more traditional news outlets, have reached similar mistaken conclusions. The Chicago Tribune's Frank James, for example, responded to the the Times story by writing that "Sarah Palin deserves an apology. To his credit, James later retracted his statement, writing that "Cameron ... and Fox apparently deserve an apology from me for what I wrote earlier."

Even some reviewers at NewsTrust, a website devoted to evaluating the quality of news stories, seem to have gotten confused. NewsTrust reviewer Michael Bugeja is a director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University of Science and Technology who says he has "researched media hoaxes for 20 years." He responded to the New York Times exposé of the Eisenstadt hoax by writing, "The Palin/Africa tidbit and its symbolism about President-Elect Obama's heritage is a prime example of what the online society will believe in a platform that will affirm any belief, however ridiculous."

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is reported to have coined the concept of a "fake fake" -- an authentic object that has been made to look as though it is in fact non-genuine. The Eisenstadt hoax has actually turned Carl Cameron's story about Sarah Palin into a real-world "fake fake." In the process, it has created a great deal of empty, pointless noise and confusion.

It may well be true, as the Columbia Journalism Review observed recently, that "the press still seems ridiculously preoccupied with Palin (and ridiculously not preoccupied with vice-president-elect Biden). ... Palin's current news value is largely based on her entertainment value" rather than because of "anything that's very politically relevant." Carl Cameron's report about her alleged problem with Africa is certainly an example of this -- a story that barely matters with regard to any important issue of the day. However, there is still something disturbing at seeing how easily the Eisenstadt hoax has succeeded in attaching itself to the story and unfairly calling its accuracy into question.

For anyone who has not yet figured this out yet, here's the story in a nutshell:

The hoax in this case is Eisenstadt's claim that he was the source for Carl Cameron's report on Fox News. Cameron never spoke to Eisenstadt and did not use Eisenstadt as the basis for his reporting.

Got it? If you're still confused, read the above paragraph a second time, or a third time if you need it. If you still have any doubts, read the New York Times story carefully. Its wording is a little less clear than it ought to be, but it also makes the point I just emphasized. Carl Cameron is standing by his story, and apparently Sarah Palin really was confused about Africa.


First of all, I admire your own hoaxbusting methods. Let's see if we can establish some common ground between us as you suggest that I am confused. A point of clarification here: The NewsTrust "comment" section, which you quote, allows us to express our "personal feelings" so that viewers understand where we might have a bias. Yes, my bias is that I believe the Africa/Palin "anecdote" is a hoax at Carl Cameron's expense. Here's my rationale: Cameron is using anonymous sources. In your posted clip, he calls those sources "insiders" and then "McCain aides" and at first is careful to state "we're told," qualifying his remarks--using the verb "suggested" and also "anecdotes"; but later in the report he goes on a riff and makes statements as if he had investigated these allegations. I'm not sure that he has. As he doesn't cite his own sources, he just seems to be simply reporting what "insiders" have told him and forgetting to state that. Remember the days when reporters used to investigate the veracity of what sources told them? (But I digress.) The challenge in busting this hoax is to find out whether Palin actually didn't know "Africa was a continent." There are too many gossipy variables and motives, including one Cameron starts to explain, that she may have been questioning whether the reference was to southern Africa vs. South Africa. That easy fodder for gossip. But let's investigate this further: Barack Obama's father was from Africa. To claim that Palin didn't know whether Africa was a country or a continent is just too nifty to be believed. Call me a skeptical former United Press reporter, or a curmudgeon journalism director, but I suspect those anonymous aides told a tasty tidbit to Cameron who felt he had to report it. And were I Cameron, what I would do now, in the aftermath of the Eisenstadt hoax, would be to redouble my efforts and interrogate those "insiders" to protect his journalism integrity. You're right that this has occupied too much media time. But busting a hoax always is a much bigger story that often leads to investigative journalism, which is why I recommend to students to remain skeptical and question everything. Rather than belabor this point, let's see if you and your viewers agree with my hoaxbusting methods. They're a little too long for a comment, so I posted them in PDF here: I want to end, though, with a statement that you made in your last paragraph that begins with "Got it?" You write: "Carl Cameron is standing by his story, and apparently Sarah Palin really was confused about Africa." Are you saying, on record, that you really trust a report with anonymous sources who have a motive (as McCain lost the election)? If that's the case, Sheldon, then I just might be confused after all.

Those are my favorite weasel words, and I keep hoping for Stephen Colbert to do a "Tonight's Word" riff on them. I agree with you (and I look forward to reading Sheldon's response) that Cameron sticking to his story doesn't quite make it "apparent" that Palin thought Africa is a country. However, Palin did say you can see Russia from Alaska, as if that helped qualify her to be president. Yes, you can see the easternmost part of Russia from the westernmost part of Alaska, but she'd have to be able to see maybe (I'm too lazy to look up the exact distance) 7,000 or 8,000 miles farther to get a sense of Vladimir Putin's soul from Anchorage. To me, for what it's worth, that bespeaks a pretty scanty knowledge of basic geography, and thinking Africa is a country and not a continent seems fully <b>consistent with</b> that. So whatever the truth of this matter, if Palin ends up as president after all I hope she'll at least pick a secretary of state who knows geography better.

Sheldon, et. al.: Let's keep the discussion on point and about journalism, not about whether I have a right to my opinion or if Palin is qualified to be president. Mainstream journalists need to: 1. Base their reports on fact, not just quotations. 2. Verify what those sources claim. 3. Ascertain the motive of anyone leaking information. 4. Use anonymous sources sparingly. When those components appear to be missing, or under-emphasized, we should take that into account. Moreover, when a component of our stories may be the subject of a hoax, however indirectly, our suspicions ought to be heightened. And when the tidbit seems too nifty to be true, we need to follow-up. If I were Carl Cameron, and this were my story, I'd surely get to the bottom of this as a matter of integrity and trust. We do have common ground, and your blog would have been better served by acknowledging that in the spirit of new media interaction rather than defending your thesis by using the old-media shortcut "apparently" in your misargued last sentence. But then again, you're entitled to your opinion.

<em>when a component of our stories may be the subject of a hoax, however indirectly, our suspicions ought to be heightened</em> Huh? <em>Any</em> story can be fodder for a hoax. I can fool people into believing that, for example, Miley Cyrus has a secret detachment of Oompla Loompas that she forces to perform her scutwork, but that doesn't mean we should be sceptical about her claim that she <a href="">used to clean toilets</a> for a living.

I put this up on D.U. a couple of days ago, but it bears repeating! "...the unintended consequences of the Other Side's putting people in the spotlight on the basis of their ability to read a script -- who all know their 'movement conservatism' mantra's backwards and forwards -- but don't know how to think. The most recent one I saw was a couple of days ago, when Palin was responding to criticsm that she 'didn't know' Africa wasn't a country. In her quoted reply, in my hometown paper (the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), she said: "If there are allegations based on questions or comments that I made in debate prep about NAFTA, and about the continent versus <b>the country</b> {emphasis added} when we talk about Africa there, then those were taken out of context..." ...Africa there... At one time, I was a naturalized Minnesotan, but that still sounds awful. But the main thing in that quote was -- She did it again! Instead of using the plural, or saying "the individual countries," or "the community of African nations," maybe, she failed to make the critical distinction between "One continent" and "Many countries." What a maroon.

My point is that nothing about the Eisenstadt hoax has any bearing whatsoever on the question of whether Carl Cameron's story is accurate. Eisenstadt was not the source of Carl Cameron's story. If you want to doubt the veracity of Cameron's claims because he cited anonymous sources, that's your opinion and you're entitled to it. However, your opinion in this matter should not be based on anything that "Martin Eisenstadt" has said or claimed. Once we remove Eisenstadt from the equation, what we're left with is your circumstantial argument that Cameron's story sounds somehow implausible because it is "just too nifty to be believed." However, reality is full of odd events and coincidences that would seem implausible if not for the fact that they actually happened. Some of the most popular conspiracy theories currently in vogue are built around just the sort of reasoning about implausibility that you have offered here. My personal opinion is that Carl Cameron's story about Palin not knowing Africa is a continent actually came from some member of the McCain campaign. I think the story is probably superficially true but not particularly interesting or informative about Palin. I myself have found myself stumbling over the words "continent" vs. "country" when talking about this story, so it's possible that Palin's alleged confusion may have been nothing more than a slip of the tongue on her part. There are multiple stories from various sources (not just Cameron) saying that McCain advisors were unhappy with Palin. Moreover, her actual performance in the Katie Couric interview and other moments during the campaign suggest that Palin is indeed capable of coming across as very shallow and uninformed about a variety of topics. It's possible, therefore, that the "Africa is a continent" story was a case of Palin making a minor slip of the tongue which irked McCain's advisors because they were generally irritated with her anyway. They then told the story to Cameron because they were letting off steam and because it made a good anecdote. In the end, therefore, the "Africa is a continent" anecdote doesn't tell us anything about Palin that is important or that we don't already know. As for the reason why I think Cameron did indeed get the story from McCain's own advisors: First, Cameron was obviously very close to the McCain campaign. He has a long-time reputation as a Republican sympathizer, based on his affiliation with Fox News, the general slant of his reporting, and the fact that [ his wife campaigned personally alongside members of the Bush family] on behalf of Republican candidates. During the 2008 election, Cameron followed along with the the McCain campaign and obviously had lots of access to McCain's advisors. The day before the election, he said that he [ had the opportunity of sitting across the aisle from McCain] on the campaign's plane. By his own account, he held off on sharing his inside information about Palin's shortcomings until the day after the election, at the request of the McCain advisors who shared that information with him. (The day <i>before</i> the election, Cameron was reporting that the McCain camp were more optimistic than ever of victory, and that "Senator McCain's enthusiasm is now higher than it has been in 14 years I've been covering him." In short, Cameron is the sort of journalist who delivers the McCain camp's party line. Based on these facts, I would be very surprised to learn that someone other than a McCain campaign insider was the source for Cameron's claim about Sarah Palin and Africa. It's still certainly possible that the claim itself is untrue. (Maybe the McCain camp floated this story as part of their effort to shift the blame for losing the election onto her instead of themselves or McCain.) In any case, there is no reason to believe that Cameron's story is a "hoax" or that it came from outside the McCain campaign. I don't happen to think that Cameron is a very good journalist, and I don't think his specific revelation about Palin and Africa is important enough to deserve the attention it has gotten. People are repeating the story because it's entertaining, not because it really tells us anything that matters about Sarah Palin or about politics. To say that a campaign anecdote is trivial, however, is not the same thing as saying that it is a hoax.

brilliant satire. and you wag your fingers...have you seen the orson welles film <i><a href="">f for fake</a></i>? this is spot-on, well-timed art. everything you know is false. the previous statmemt is true. as nelson muntz would say ha ha. as if fox isn't the epitome of noise and confusion anyway. their brand of truthiness has helped reality-based conservativsm believe this is a center-right country for too long. this isn't journalism we can believe. pwned.

When I was told this "Africa" story by a co-worker, I asked about the source and was told "anonymous sources in the McCain campaign." Then I watched Carl Cameron's report and was equally unimpressed. Regarding the use of "anonymous sources", how about recognizing them as unreliable, thus worthless, and simply finding them unacceptable? Anonymous sources are rejected in scientific inquiry as well as in judicial proceedings. So why are they acceptable in journalism? This is not a rhetorical question. Are they acceptable for entertainment value? To me "anonymous resources" create the confusion and, more seriously, the loss of journalism's integrity. I read science fiction and fantasy, prefer books over film. I follow news and politics. I love it when books and news are done well. I do not like news that is rife with conjecture, voyeurism, sensationalism, and fantasy. In reporting of this nature I have noticed that the sources are usually "anonymous." Without the use of "anonymous resources" this whole situation would be non-existent. But did people get some good entertainment out of it? Is that it then? Journalism would be a much more respected field without the use of anoymous resources.