Sorry, folks, the paper isn’t free. And the Iraq war isn’t over, at least not yet.
In an elaborate hoax, pranksters distributed thousands of free copies of a spoof edition of The New York Times on Wednesday morning at busy subway stations around the city, including Grand Central Terminal, Washington and Union Squares, the 14th and 23rd Street stations along Eighth Avenue, and Pacific Street in Brooklyn, among others.
The spurious 14-page papers — with a headline “IRAQ WAR ENDS” — surprised commuters, many of whom took the free copies thinking they were legitimate.
The paper is dated July 4, 2009, and imagines a liberal utopia of national health care, a rebuilt economy, progressive taxation, a national oil fund to study climate change, and other goals of progressive politics.
The hoax was accompanied by a Web site that mimics the look of The Times’s real Web site. A page of the spoof site contained links to dozens of progressive organizations, which were also listed in the print edition.
(A headline in the fake business section declares: “Public Relations Industry Forecasts a Series of Massive Layoffs.” Uh, sure.)
The Associated Press reported that copies of the spoof paper were also handed out in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, and that the pranksters — who included a film promoter, three unnamed Times employees and Steven Lambert, an art professor — financed the paper with small online contributions and created the paper to urge President-elect Barack Obama to keep his campaign promises.
According to The A.P., software and Internet support were provided by the Yes Men, who were the subject of a 2004 documentary film.
New York Times Special Edition Video News Release - Nov. 12, 2008 from H Schweppes on Vimeo.
On Wednesday, the Yes Men issued a statement about the prank, stating, in part:
In an elaborate operation six months in the planning, 1.2 million papers were printed at six different presses and driven to prearranged pickup locations, where thousands of volunteers stood ready to pass them out on the street.
Catherine J. Mathis, a Times spokeswoman, said: “This is obviously a fake issue of The Times. We are in the process of finding out more about it.”
Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a co-author of “The Trust,” a history of the family that controls The Times, said in a telephone interview that the paper should be flattered by the spoof.
“I would say if you’ve got one, hold on to it,” Mr. Jones, a former Times reporter, said of the fake issue. “It will probably be a collector’s item. I’m just glad someone thinks The New York Times print edition is worthy of an elaborate hoax. A Web spoof would have been infinitely easier. But creating a print newspaper and handing it out at subway stations? That takes a lot of effort.”
He added, “I consider this a gigantic compliment to The Times.”
There is a history of spoofs and parodies of The Times. Probably the best-known is one unveiled two months into the 1978 newspaper strike. A whole cast of characters took part in that parody, including the journalist Carl Bernstein, the author Christopher Cerf, the humorist Tony Hendra and the Paris Review editor George Plimpton.
And for April Fool’s Day in 1999, the British business executive Richard Branson printed 100,000 copies of a parody titled “I Can’t Believe It’s Not The New York Times.” A 27-year-old Princeton alumnus named Matthew Polly, operating a “guerrilla press” known as Hard Eight Publishing, edited that 32-page spoof of the newspaper.