Bakersfield Californian columnist fired after inserting fake info in copy

By now you’ve probably heard about these April Fools’ jokes: the hoax website that fooled The Washington Post and others; the fake Mitt Romney article in Forbes that was taken as real by some, including Google News; the stupid pranks played by student journalists at Penn State and Boston University. (Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon collected other pranks here.)

Here’s one more tone deaf April Fools’ hoax from the press: An outdoors column in The Bakersfield Californian included a fake section about a foreign fish species being planted in a local lake.

The item was made up by columnist Steve Merlo. The paper was unaware of the fake item and subsequently published an editor’s note to apologize to readers:

Californian editors on Friday determined that an item in Friday’s Outdoors column, by Steve Merlo, was a complete fabrication.

The item — “Foreign trout species to be planted in Isabella Lake” — has absolutely no basis in truth and should be disregarded by anyone who read it.

I apologize to all readers who were misled by this report and to all who expect, as we do, that the paper will strive to meet a higher standard.

The Californian fully retracts the item.

Deadspin spotted the editor’s note and also grabbed the fabricated text, which has since been scrubbed from the offending column. The folks at iMediaEthics also have a write-up about this prank.

An excerpt from the fake item:

India’s foreign minister of natural resources recently announced a cooperative exchange between his country and the California Department of Fish and Game. Needing a viable predator to control the mahseer, a large carp-like game fish from the Kashmir River in Uttarakhand Province located at the foot of the Himalayas, internationally famous fisheries biologist Pasloo Flir announced the exchange of 5,000 adult Florida bass for 2,000 sterile Himalayan Greta trout.

A quick bit of checking by a copy editor would have revealed that there is no such thing as Himalayan Greta trout, nor is there an “internationally famous fisheries biologist” named Pasloo Flir. As Deadspin points out, that name is an anagram for April Fools’.

One big, obvious problem with this prank is the writer didn’t think to inform his editors about his plans for a joke item. Thus their surprise and displeasure at learning they’d unknowingly published fake copy. That was incredibly irresponsible on Merlo’s part. He has since been fired, the Atlantic Wire reports.

Of course, as Deadspin notes, the paper “has the ultimate responsibility for anything that runs in its pages, and running Merlo’s column without checking it out first is an institutional failure …”

True.

This incident exposes the reality that not a single person involved in handling the column attempted to check basic facts. A good copy editor would want to make sure it’s in fact the “Greta” trout and not the “Great” trout. Or that “Pasloo Flir” is spelled correctly, and deserves the distinction of being “internationally famous.”

Institutional failure indeed.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/heinze3 Justin Heinze

    I think we need to lighten up a little. It’s a joke about a fish. It wouldn’t be much of an April “Fools” if he had informed his editors of the joke ahead of time. Satire is an important part of journalism and it shouldn’t be restricted to satire-only mediums like the Onion. As Stewart/Colbert show, people love to laugh while learning. As modern economic trends show, less and less people like to read while learning. I hate that as much as I’m sure many journalism professionals do, but it’s the day and age we live in. We need to expand on AP Style and be more consistently creative in the way we deliver the news and what we include in our publications. You can still maintain integrity and honesty while being engaging. And papers do do that today. But many don’t do it as much as they need to.