Famous writer Cormac McCarthy is alive and well, but not for USA Today’s lack of trying.
“America’s Newspaper,” as the Northern Virginia-based Gannett flagship likes to call itself, fell for an evil hoax Tuesday morning and used its Twitter account to report that the 82-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning author—whose celebrated novels range from All The Pretty Horses to No Country for Old Men—had died of a stroke.
“I have just one comment: Verify. Isn’t that the first rule of journalism? Verify?” demanded Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity at Alfred A. Knopf Inc., McCarthy’s longtime publisher.
“This is certainly not the business you and I grew up in. But still, there is no excuse.”
McCarthy’s literary agent, Amanda Urban, said her client, who is “totally fine,” was not available for an interview about his brief brush with fake death.
“He doesn’t talk to people—you know that,” Urban said. “He’s given like three interviews in his whole life. This isn’t even a story. There must be something more interesting…Maybe the day will bring something better.”
USA Today’s misguided tweet, issued at 7:28 a.m. Eastern Time, provided further evidence that the perils of social media and digital journalism, in which scoops are measured in seconds and a spike in clicks means advertising revenue, can be just as deadly as a massive stroke, but only in the metaphorical sense.
By the time the paper’s social media minions retracted their exclusive nearly four hours later—“#BREAKING Earlier report of death of author Cormac McCarthy is not true; publicist confirms he’s alive”—it must have felt like death to the newspaper’s bosses.
But that is pure and unverified speculation, because various editors at the top of USA Today’s masthead didn’t respond to voicemail messages from The Daily Beast seeking insight into the snafu—which, let’s be honest, is the kind of thing that can happen to anyone in this business, and has pretty much happened to everyone over the years, including, in this case, novelist Joyce Carol Oates who initially tweeted in response to the “news”: “A great loss. Very sad. Profound writer & American (dark & intransigent) visionary.” (Indeed, more than a century ago, Mark Twain was said to have clarified a prematurely published obituary with the famous quip: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”)
Bogaards said he learned of the hoax—and USA Today’s credulous embrace of it—Tuesday morning when he arrived at the office and received an inquiring email from Entertainment Weekly—the first of an avalanche from a multiplicity of news outlets.
“I started getting all these fucking emails from reporters asking if Cormac was dead,” Bogaards recounted. “I thought I’d be spending my morning working on Paulo Coelho’s new book.”
Apparently, at 7:08 a.m., 20 minutes before USA Today took the bait, a mischief-maker had tweeted from a counterfeit account, Alfred A. Knopf News: “URGENT. Author Cormac McCarthy dies for [sic] stroke at 82.”
Bogaards said he immediately phoned Urban and confirmed that McCarthy was doing fine; then he called the company lawyer who promptly alerted Twitter, which suspended the bogus account. But the damage, however minimal, was done.
“You have to clarify and issue a statement,” Bogaards said, employing one of his favorite analogies by adding a reference to BP’s catastrophic April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “If Deepwater Horizon taught us anything, you put a cap on it quickly.”
Bogaards continued: “There are brushfires like this that happen every day on the Internet. Rogue accounts happen all the time.”
This particular rogue account seemed strangely familiar to Twitter experts. The weirdly ungrammatical use of the phrase “dies for stroke” suggested that for whoever was spreading this lie, English was a second or possibly third language.
Sure enough, the author of hoax was expeditiously identified as Italian fraudster Tommaso Debenedetti, who apparently ‘fessed up on the rogue account, tweeting: “This account is hoax created by Italian journalist Tommaso Debenedetti. McCarthy is alive and well.
—Alfred A. Knopf News (@AKnopfNews) June 28, 2016.”
Business Insider has described Debenedetti as “a middle-aged schoolteacher and father living in Rome with a colorful past and a mission to change the way we use the internet.”
The news site added: “Using Twitter, he has been able to wreak havoc upon the global economy, threaten diplomatic relations, fool world leaders, and cause embarrassment to respected media establishments.”
Debenedetti’s “accomplishments” over the past 16 years include causing minor panics in cyberspace by assuming apparently authoritative fake Twitter identities to erroneously announce the deaths of the pope, Fidel Castro and Pedro Almodóvar; pretending to tweet in the personas of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad; and getting various Italian newspapers to publish more than 60 completely fabricated interviews that he didn’t conduct with, among others, John Grisham, Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, then-Cardinal Ratzinger and the Dalai Lama, according to The Guardian.
“Social media is the most unverifiable information source in the world but the news media believes it because of its need for speed,” Debenedetti confided to the British newspaper in March 2012.
The “need for speed,” as derring-do fighter pilot Tom Cruise so winningly chanted in Top Gun, was clearly at work in this particular instance.
The Gawker Media tech site Gizmodo provided the most complete timeline of USA Today’s shame.
Ten minutes after the Virginia-based paper’s initial tweet, Buzzfeed’s David Mack tweeted: “Cormac McCarthy’s agent and publisher say this is not true.”
Five minutes after that, USA tweeted: “We are looking into the report to verify its authenticity.”
Gizmodo’s Matt Novak noted: “They probably should’ve done that before tweeting.”
A lesson to us all.