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December 15, 2006
How Not To Establish Media Credibility

The first rule of Media Club is don't make things up. The second rule of Media Club is that if you break the first rule, don't create such a fantastic hoax that its collapse enrages an entire nation. The third rule of Media Club is that if you break the first two rules of Media Club ... start your own Internet news service.

You think I'm kidding? Ask the executives at RTBF, the French-language Belgian broadcaster, who may find themselves with plenty of time to go the full Eason Jordan after their latest stunt:

Thousands of Belgians were thrown into a panic by news that the Flemish half of the country had declared independence. A two-hour live television report on the break-up of the nation showed images of ecstatic Flemish nationalists waving flags on the streets and queues of French speakers heading for the “border”.

The panic turned to anger after RTBF, the French public broadcaster, admitted 40 minutes into the show that it was a hoax designed to dramatise tensions between Flanders, in the north, and French-speaking Wallonia, in the south.

Thousands of viewers called the station during the broadcast, some of them in tears over the “death of Belgium” and reports that the King had fled. ...

Fadila Laanan, the minister responsible for TV in Wallonia, forced the station to confess to the hoax after receiving an alarming number of phone calls and text messages during the programme.

Wow -- sounds hilarious! Of course, there's simply no better comedy that that which attempts to convince people that a massive effort at ethnic cleansing has just begun in their country. It's especially funny when it exploits real tensions between communities. Tres bon, mais oui!

Comparisons have already been made between this hoax and the Orson Welles broadcast of War of the Worlds, but there are two major differences. First, Welles actually had a disclaimer to start the show, which most people still don't know; it was the people who tuned in late who freaked over the "invasion". Secondly, it was an adaptation of a well-known piece of fiction by a band of radio performers who regularly did such dramatizations at that scheduled time.

This hoax, by comparison, got conducted by a news agency without any disclaimers whatsoever. It's difficult to understand how they thought faking a civil war would give them the credibility to speak on the tensions in Belgium. Instead, RTBF destroyed the credibility of the real journalists who staged this fiasco and its own as well. Who would trust anything they report now? If they staged a civil war with some believability, who knows what else they have staged?

However, they shouldn't feel too bad. If current events prove anything, the producers and the journalists who conspired to stage the Belgian civil war will be running an Internet news aggregator about internal Belgian politics in less than two years.

UPDATE: The original Times report was unclear about this, but RTBF is a French-language Belgian broadcaster, not a French broadcaster. Thanks to CQ commenter obsrvr for the correction.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 15, 2006 5:00 AM

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