Mon, Nov 17, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Hoaxers seize center stage in campaign stings

One of the more quoted policy advisers to Senator John McCain turns out to have been an elaborate, months-long con game

By Richard Perez-pena  /  STAFF REPORTER

It was among the juicier post-election recriminations: Fox News Channel quoted an unnamed figure from Senator John McCain’s campaign as saying that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin did not know that Africa was a continent.

Who would say such a thing? On Monday the answer popped up on a blog and popped out of the mouth of David Shuster, an MSNBC anchor.

“Turns out it was Martin Eisenstadt, a McCain policy adviser, who has come forward today to identify himself as the source of the leaks,” Shuster said.

Trouble is, Martin Eisenstadt doesn’t exist. His blog does, but it’s a put-on. The think tank where he is a senior fellow — the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy — is just a Web site. The TV clips of him on YouTube are fakes.

And the claim of credit for the Africa anecdote is just the latest ruse by Eisenstadt, who turns out to be a very elaborate hoax that has been going on for months. MSNBC, which quickly corrected the mistake, has plenty of company in being taken in by an Eisenstadt hoax, including The New Republic and the Los Angeles Times.

Now a pair of obscure filmmakers say they created Martin Eisenstadt to help them pitch a TV show based on the character. But under the circumstances, why should anyone believe a word they say?

“That’s a really good question,” one of the two, Eitan Gorlin, said with a laugh.

(For what it’s worth, another reporter for the New York Times is an acquaintance of Gorlin and vouches for his identity, and Gorlin is indeed “Mr Eisenstadt” in those videos. He and his partner in deception, Dan Mirvish, have entries on the Internet Movie Database, imdb.com. But still ...)

They say the blame lies not with them but with shoddiness in the traditional news media and especially the blogosphere.

“With the 24-hour news cycle they rush into anything they can find,” said Mirvish, 40.

Gorlin, 39, argued that Eisenstadt was no more of a joke than half the bloggers or political commentators on the Internet or television.

An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, explained the network’s misstep by saying someone in the newsroom received the Palin item in an e-mail message from a colleague and assumed it had been checked out.

“It had not been vetted,” he said. “It should not have made air.”

But most of Eisenstadt’s victims have been bloggers, a reflection of the sloppy speed at which any tidbit, no matter how specious, can bounce around the Internet. And they fell for the fake material despite ample warnings online about Eisenstadt, including the work of one blogger who spent months chasing the illusion around cyberspace, trying to debunk it.

The hoax began a year ago with short videos of a parking valet character, who Gorlin and Mirvish said was the original idea for a TV series.

Soon there were videos showing him driving a car while spouting offensive, opinionated nonsense in praise of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Those videos attracted tens of thousands of Internet hits and a bit of news media attention.

When Giuliani dropped out of the presidential race, the character morphed into Eisenstadt, a parody of a blowhard cable news commentator.

Gorlin said they chose the name because “all the neocons in the Bush administration had Jewish last names and Christian first names.”

Eisenstadt became an adviser to McCain and got a blog, updated occasionally with comments claiming insider knowledge, and other bloggers began quoting and linking to it. It mixed weird-but-true items with false ones that were plausible, if just barely.

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