Breaking (Fake) News

Obi Kenobi Is Dead, Vader Says,
or When Truth Hides Behind Humor

“Obi-Wan Kenobi, the mastermind of some of the most devastating attacks on the Galactic Empire and the most hunted man in the galaxy, was killed in a firefight with Imperial forces near Alderaan, Darth Vader announced on Sunday.”
That’s how the special edition of the Galactic Empire Times broke the news that send ripples throughout nearby and faraway lands, mostly fictional. The announcement and the “final” edition of the New York Times, dominated the water cooler talk of the midweek and welcomed a return to lighter, more satirical takes on the news.
By showing one of the most reviled fictional villains, Lord Darth Vader, announcing the killing of the main hero of the Star Wars film franchise, the Galactic editors play it as a double entendre, down to its PhotoShop-enhanced White House’s East Room setting: first, it’s a juxtaposing of sorts, over the recent real news of the killing of Osama bin-Laden by a Navy Seals commando in Pakistan, announced by President Barack Obama.
It also plays on the manufactured villain-hero dichotomy of the movies: unlike their ever unsatisfying conclusion, though, in this scenario, the villain won and Vader is the undisputed ruler of that alternate reality. As in any satire, the unsettling element is in the core of the story it emulates: the real Obama press conference; both fake and real announcements include a warning about the need to remain vigilant and the promise that the war (against U.S. enemies such as bin-Laden) is not over yet.
That’s what brings home the realization that, as with any political killing, it’s all done as a symbol of power display. The coda and raison d’être of such announcements serve merely to seek the endorsement of public opinion to the current defense-mind status quo, and to justify further actions against enemies, whether they’re real or only perceived.
Score one for the double oxymoron of fake news and serious comedy.
The other piece of satirical news concerns “the newspaper of record,” the New York Times. In the version concocted by the little-known Final Edition comedic group, the cover closely traces the real paper’s online edition, which is now only accessed by paying readers, with a picture of its Times Square building in flames (and a falling apart logo). Right below the main headline about its own demise, a title goes against the paper’s traditionally austere style, with the jocose speculation that its HQ may have been put on fire by the owners for the “insurance money.”
It’s as crass as any medieval sideshow, and yet, it fulfills its purpose, which is, not to have a purpose at all. One of the tenets of any healthy satire is exactly that it has no clear agenda other than to call attention to some absurdity, or indignation, some perceived hypocrisy that ultimately is irrelevant compared to the humor used to deliver it.
That both independent comedic acts coincidentally used the New York Times as platform for their humor should not come as a surprise. For the old gray lady only represents the predicament facing print news these days, and the many challenges involved, such as the threat of free Internet access, the complicated issue of the value of the information, public demand, copyrights and so on.
The Times is having a very public hard time adapting to, well, the times. Its recent decision to charge for access to its content online, following what’s now the majority of newspapers throughout the world, is but a symptom of a harsher reality around the corner: how much its readers are willing to pay for what can be found elsewhere for free? Or rather, does what you get for free really have the same value as what you’re forced to pay for, or if you can afford it, are you entitled to more reliable information?
In that case, if you can no longer afford quality information, what’s left for you, as a reader? Second-class, recycled data? Recent efforts by major corporations to own and prevent open access to the Web by anyone, their stated aim to kill “net neutrality,” are certainly part of the trend, that ultimately may backlash against those advocating for free online content.
Such advocates may be itching for a fight against big, wealthy publishing houses, and their zeal to protect and control content they’re willing to invest heavily on, as long as they can recoup the costs later, by charging customer access. Which may be a commendable, democratic initiative, and those publishing corporations, and their well-paid corporate lawyer teams, can certainly take it.
But in reality, such fight may wind up spilling over and ultimately hurting the independent, small publisher, or the potential author who would have no way of surviving if the original content he or she creates ceases to have a dollar value attached to it. In other words, it’s not hard to imagine that corporations and even print news companies such as the New York Times will find ways to remain in business profitably. The alternative for the independent artist would be considerably hard to come by.
After all, the accepted rules of copywriting and personal authorship are relatively recent and have been viciously fought over in the past 300 years. It was only when it was incorporated with the larger struggle for laws protecting labor that a specific set of rules was slowly drawn and agreed upon by most nations. No wonder the authorship of many a masterpiece from the Age of Enlightenment remains clouded and elusive: not every artist had the foresight or power to assure their work would be protected and remain under their own name.
It’s ironic then that the Internet, with its foundation on ideals of knowledge and treasuries of mankind being accessible to all, has now developed this threat to turn back the clock and declare original content generated by some a proprietary right of everybody else. To use a contemporary example as a metaphor, it’d be as if the inventors of the iPhone would be asked to work for free. But Apple would remain a very profitable company.
So, paraphrasing the Times, that’s the all the (fake) news fit to print. (And notice we didn’t even need to touch any conspiracy theory). It’s all there, anyway, how easy the political discourse can be applied to apparently opposite sides, without breaking a sweat, how the fight for democratic access to the goods of society can be manipulated to a backlash against the concept of authorship, and who’d benefit from it in the end, do we need to keep on going?
The biggest contradiction, though, the one that would make really hard for anyone to live with themselves once everything is said and done is: how come we started talking about two inspired comedic pieces and wound up in this pseudo-serious, suck-all-the-air-out-of-the-room type of discussion? That’s something we soon won’t be able to forgive ourselves. As they’d rush to say, when something like that happens, it means that Darth Vader won. And the New York Times building is, in fact, in flames.

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