When I was making up stories for one of the supermarket tabloids in the mid-1980s, little did I know that I was making up a template for others to follow, to use and prosper and with which take over America, however temporarily. This template has been used by many Republicans, by Rush Limbaugh, by Bill O’Reilly and his colleagues at Fox News, by foreign religious zealots and similar American Christian fanatics, by The Lincoln Group and of course many American newspapers who fail to check the accuracy of their reporters closely, if at all.
This template served me well as I wrote classics like “Rabid Nun Infects Entire Convent,” which happens to also be the title of a book I wrote on the subject of tabloid journalism. Ok, not capital “J” Journalism, but apparent journalism, let’s say.
Stories like “Grandma Turns Pet Dog Inside Out Looking for Lost Lottery Ticket,” “Woman Gets Pregnant, Has Baby Same Day,” and “Cult Uses Human Heads for Bowling Balls” all followed this simple template.
Here are the Rules:
First: Make up something false. It doesn’t matter how whacked-out it is, or how patently false to anyone with half-a-brain.
Second: Put it in a context that people are comfortable with. If it’s for a newspaper, write it so that it really really sounds like a newspaper story, with quotes, even. Make it sound like you have multiple sources, even though you’re pulling out of your butt.
The same goes for TV. It’s always best to have a distinguished-looking person read it, or a forceful one. Or one who shouts a lot and of whom people will be afraid not to believe upon penalty of being bitten. He (or a bleach-blonde she) doesn’t have to actually be an actual journalist at all. A good way to go is to find someone who has recently been a journalist, come from another network, and can provide sufficient credibility when he or she delivers the lies that you have pulled from your butt.
Third: Tell the story a lot. Play the story over and over if it’s for TV. The more you play it, the more people will believe it. Find a way to re-write that lie repeatedly if it’s for print. The average attention span of those inclined to swallow your lie is approximately seven seconds, and his frame of reference is tends to be in the last-fifteen-minutes range.
The big lie, told often, becomes truth after a while. I think Machiavelli said that, or Stalin. Rove, maybe? It might have been Nick Tosches.
Fourth: Pander to the worst in people. Work their fears, their ignorance and perverse pleasures. A worst-case scenario always worked for me. Predicting a worst-case scenario has worked for politicians since antiquity, be it Mongol hordes or mushroom clouds on the horizon.
Fifth: Quote somebody whom others do not know, or will never check. Hardly anybody checks anything. It’s better to jump on board the bus and run with an outrageous story. Some editors will just let things slide. Other editors or news directors have instructions from on high.
Sixth: Make them feel a very big emotion. Get their blood boiling. Make them cry. My stories “Clown Ghosts Save Dying Boy,” and “Dead Daughter Leaves Message of Love on Daddy’s VCR,” are examples that can never fail to bring tears to those easily fooled.
Gross them out. My stories “Man Sells Bodies from Chemical Disaster to Starving Ethiopians as Meat for Prepared Meals,” and “Bandit Steals False Teeth from the Mouths of Elderly Victims,” are prime examples of this technique. The ability to tell a story in a way that makes the audience react emotionally will keep you employed.
Seventh: Whenever possible, get somebody not connected with your organization to deliver your lie. Pay them well to plant stories, or to give opinions supporting your lies. Pay newspapers cash to run stories you’ve made up.
Eighth: Under no circumstances admit you were wrong or that your butt comprises your two independent sources. When someone comes at you with the real facts, call them names. Impugn their patriotism. Imply that they’re mentally ill. Divert all attention from your story. Make them the story. Make yourself the story. Do anything to avoid the truth.
Not all of these rules applied to the tabloid stories I wrote, but they are good rules and true. If you follow them closely, you too can become the next Stephen Glass and get serious backend money on the movie. You could get Random House to pay to make a book out of your lies, as I did.
Or you could get some fool elected president and start a war.