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The "fake news" virus spreads to San Francisco weekly

In this weeks SF Weekly, Nic Foit and Ira Tes deliver an article about the Barry Bonds' steroid scandal that is too far-out to believe. In fact, it's not even true at all. What happens when trusted news outlets churn out fanciful satire? Probably confusio

Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.
3 min read
Do you remember the name Stephen Glass? How about Jayson Blair? Both men were hired as journalists at highly esteemed news publications but chose to write fiction instead of acting as reporters.

After reading Steroids Confidential, this week's cover story in the SF Weekly, my first conclusion was that its authors, Nic Foit and Ira Tes, had secured themselves a place alongside Glass and Blair in the business of manufacturing the truth. As it turns out, the title belongs The SF Weekly itself and, as the SFist points out "Nic Foit and Ira Tes" is nothing more than an anagram for steroid fanatic.

The article is an expose about Barry Bonds' steroid use as detailed by Marlon Leftwich. According to the article Leftwich shared a cell for a week with Bonds' personal trainer Greg Anderson. During their one week together Leftwich managed to get all the steamy details from Anderson that he has refused to tell the grand jury even after being locked up for over a year for his silence. From the onset the story seemed fishy. I got to know Greg Anderson fairly well during the six months we spent together at FDC Dublin and I simply couldn't believe that he would've opened up to Leftwich in just one week. I queried the Bureau of Prisons inmate locater and found no trace of the man. I made a few quick phone calls to guys that had recently been released and confirmed that Anderson had only shared a cell with one man over the past year; his name isn't Marlon. In fact no one seemed to remember a man named Marlon at all.

Before long, I realized that Marlon Leftwich was no more real than the fantastic stories he told the Weekly. I called the SF Weekly and asked them if the story was fake. They told me that it was and proceeded to transfer me to the editorial department where they explained that the story was a work of satire and pointed out the secret behind Nic and Ira's names.

For a second, I thought that maybe The Onion had bought out the SF Weekly, but it seems that claim still belongs to Village Voice Media, and the company still appears to be in the business of delivering "real news." I knew it wasn't April Fools so I started hunting around the article for a disclaimer or an admission that it's only a joke. There wasn't one.

Satire is an integral part of the press, but it is of critical importance that readers are able to recognize where the "real news" ends and the fiction begins. While Steroids Confidential starts out in left-field and expands into the absurd, there's no "gotcha" to reveal to the reader that it's all just a ruse. In fact, one journalist from the Associated Press even wrote to me asking about Marlon Leftwich, and it wouldn't surprise me if the FBI knocked on the door at the SF Weekly in an effort to reach Mr. Leftwich.

This begs the question: If the FBI did show up, would the fictional reporters go to jail for refusing to identify their fictional source? I'm sure they'd be quick to suggest that it was just a joke, but then the government might just lock everyone up to cover their embarrassment for getting played.