Monumental Ignorance and Fake News Collide

Rats, not chicken
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There’s an undeniable guilty pleasure involved in soaking up the accounts of the weird and crazy things that people (allegedly) do every week, as reported in what used to be affectionately labeled as “supermarket tabloids.”

In the good old days, you could amuse yourself while you waited to pay for your groceries with such rags as the Weekly World News, which famously ran headlines like, “ALIEN CAPTURED BY U.S. AGENTS!” “FIRST PHOTOS OF HEAVEN!” and to balance that one, “SATAN APPEARS DURING EARTHQUAKE!” (ALL CAPS and exclamation points were mandatory).

Recurring stories are the staple of such publications — it’s not easy dreaming up a bunch of preposterous new stories every week — and the Weekly World News was famous for its ongoing series of headlines about the half-human “Bat Boy,” who over the years was found in a cave, captured by FBI agents, escaped from captivity, was caught stealing cars and (apparently) as an alternative to jail, enlisted in the Marines.

Of course, such “journalism” has now taken over a significant amount of bandwidth online, with the added advantage that there are no space constraints on the number of “news” stories that can be jammed onto a website.

One of the more prominent online outposts of this tripe is the At first glance, the website appears semi-legitimate, not an obviously Onion-type satire site, where everything you read is clearly fictional. WNDR headlines are deliberately “shocking” but read like actual news reports, such as:

  • “Morgue employee accidentally cremated by one of his co-workers”
  • “Babysitter arrested by the FBI after she tried to sell three children on eBay”
  • “Elderly woman accused of training cats to steal jewelry from her neighbors”

If you consider any of those alleged stories for more than 10 seconds, you recognize that they’re genuinely fake. If that isn’t an oxymoron.

The Story That Just Won’t Die
WNDR’s latest effort to seduce readers into scanning an outrageous article is a story with a headline that screamed, “More than a MILLION POUNDS of RAT meat is sold as boneless chicken wings in the U.S.A!”

Despite the obvious fact that harvesting, skinning and processing millions of pounds of rat meat would be an incredibly formidable, time-consuming and hugely expensive proposition, the allegation quickly made the rounds on social media, and according to the Associated Press, was even briefly posted without any disclaimer on the Gun Society website — as if it were legit.

The story even prompted a few actual news sites, such as WUSA 9, which is in Washington, D.C., of all places, to lead with a question: “Is rat meat being sold in the U.S. disguised as boneless chicken?” before answering, “No, the FDA confirms this is not true.”

Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration felt compelled to respond to the rat-meat allegation.

“This story is not true,” Peter Cassell, an FDA spokesperson, stated in an email to the Associated Press. “We have never put out such a warning.”

As AP explained, this latest rat-meat story appeared to be a variation of an earlier article that claimed such meat was confiscated at the Port of San Francisco after arriving from China.

“That February 2017 story included a tie-in to the Super Bowl,” AP noted, “alleging some of the product might have made it into the U.S. market as people prepared food for parties.”

The 2017 story estimated that the rat meat allegedly seized totaled several thousand pounds and claimed that 300,000 pounds might have been “accidentally” sold. But as is true with all tabloid journalism, exaggeration is the watchword, so this year’s iteration of the “Are you eating deep-fried rat?” story jacked up the amount (allegedly) confiscated by authorities to “hundreds of thousands of pounds”, and the amount supposedly entering commercial channels to one million pounds of boneless, skinless rat.

It’s a testament to either a level of monumental ignorance on the part of the public, or a recognition of how much leverage fake news and alternative facts now have on people’s understanding of news reporting — probably a little Column A, a little Column B — that a government agency had to issue an official denial of a story published alongside alien babies, sightings of Satan and a criminal gang of cats burglarizing people’s homes.

Oh, how the profession of journalism has been battered and bruised.

And there’s nothing fake or funny about that.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.