The phony news caper

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Fake news releases may be emailed to aldiamon@herniahill.net.

When you think of fake news, you probably don’t think of the Journal Tribune. Actually, you probably don’t think of that publication, no matter what you’re thinking about. And for the most part, there’s no reason you should.

Thirty years ago, the Journal Tribune was arguably the best newspaper in Maine, providing superb local coverage of the Biddeford-Saco area, while regularly breaking statewide stories of consequence. But the shift away from afternoon papers, declining advertising revenue and indifferent corporate ownership slowly stripped it down to its current corpse-like condition. In assessing the state’s media, it’s ignorable.

But when nobody’s paying attention, bad things can happen. On Dec. 30, 2017, they did.

That day, the JT ran a front-page story by Executive Editor Ed Pierce about a new restaurant that planned to open in Biddeford in 2019. Routine stuff, based on a press release. Except that the eatery, to be called The Kitchen Inc., didn’t appear at all routine.

The menu, described as “luxury cuisine,” featured sushi. And, uh, French fries. The owner, “Me-Sa Ginny” (say it fast), is quoted as stating the staff would be composed entirely of men, in order to “give back to women.” Ginny goes on to say, “Not a single female employee will work in this establishment, barring transgendered women of course, who are indubitably the most competent for the positions we need to staff, such as secretary, dishwasher and valet.” He added that the staff will be “dressed in only the finest attire that Men’s Warehouse has to offer.”

Ginny (he spells his first name a couple of different ways) is supposedly the owner of a fine china company located in a tiny town in Manitoba, Canada, although neither he nor the business show up in Google searches.

There’s more, but you get the idea. The release is an obvious phony, the work of a local blogger and city hall gadfly named Karl Reed Jr., who admitted as much in online postings. In a phone interview, Reed said he sent the fake story to several news outlets as a “kind of science project,” to warn the public to “pay attention to what’s being published.”

The Journal Tribune seems to be the only place that bought into Reed’s scam. More than bought in. In short order, the paper totally owned it. On Jan. 5, a second front-page story appeared, citing a second press release, announcing that funding for the restaurant had fallen through, and it wouldn’t be opening.

Reed says he never sent another release and had no further communication with the paper after his initial fictional announcement. So, it’s unclear whether the second story was spawned by another prankster or was concocted internally at the JT.

On Jan. 11, the paper ran a “Clarification” buried on an inside page that said, “Through due diligence,” it had figured out that the press release (it only mentions one) “was not factual.” No mention of the alleged second release. No explanation for how this happened.

Pierce, who authored both stories, referred all questions to Publisher Devin Hamilton, whose only on-the-record response was a succinct “No comment.”

Meanwhile, Reed was trying to interest the rest of the news media in this escapade. He got no takers. In an online exchange with Portland Press Herald business reporter J. Craig Anderson, he was told, “Newspapers are having a tough enough time right now operating with inadequate budgets and skeletal staffs without people like you trying to (expletive) with them for laughs.”

Which raises this question: Since when is protecting your profession more important than keeping the public informed?

The Me-Sa Ginny saga could be written off as inconsequential if it weren’t a symptom of a serious disease.

Maine politics is awash in phony news stories from outlets like Maine First Media and the Maine Examiner. The Examiner’s connections to the state Republican Party were hinted at in investigative pieces by the Boston Globe and Bangor Daily News, but weren’t confirmed until a California computer geek figured it out and shared his research with the Lewiston Sun Journal. GOP operatives appear to be behind a badly skewed story shared on social media that might have tipped the Lewiston mayoral election to a conservative.

In that case, as in that of Me-Sa Ginny, the conventional media was slow and ineffective in correcting the record and never did get around to publicly examining its shortcomings.

Rather than eat humble pie, the local press apparently prefers sushi with French fries.

Disclosure: Mo Mehlsak, editor of The Forecaster, worked at the Journal Tribune from 1985-2004.

Fake news releases may be emailed to aldiamon@herniahill.net.