On a brisk November morning in 2008, New Yorkers awoke to a “special edition” of the New York Times. Coming off trains, out of subway stations, and walking down sidewalks, morning commuters were met by hundreds of newspaper hawkers, many of them wearing official looking black aprons emblazoned with the gothic Times logo (and the words “special edition” in very small letters below), who handed out free editions of a fourteen page newspaper. It looked like the Times, it felt like the Times, but over a full-color picture of military helicopters flying off into the sunset, the headline read: IRAQ WAR ENDS.Discuss on Social Book »
“Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom were brought to an unceremonious close today…” the article accompanying the headline began. In the Times’ signature font the article continued, laying out the details of the cessation of hostilities: United States and coalition troops would immediately withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the United Nations, with the money owed by the US fully paid up, would take over the rebuilding of hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. The stock of military contractors, the article reported, had been downgraded to “junk” status and the US civilian and military administrations apologized for the colossal mess they had made of things. The article ended with a weary and repentant General Petraeus admitting, “I guess it’s never too late to learn.”
Peace was not the only good news reported. Sharing the front page was article announcing that the “Nation Sets Its Sights on Building a Sane Economy,” with salary caps, trust-busting legislation, and a true-cost tax on corporations that would take into account environmental impact. Inside pages carried stories on the repeal of the US Patriot Act, the creation of a public high-speed internet, and the full funding of public universities so that all qualified students could attend for free. Another article reported the nationalization of US oil with profits from the national reserves funding efforts to combat climate change. “We Apologize,” began an editorial written by the Times editors, who asked forgiveness from their readership for their lack of critical investigative reporting and propensity to parrot the words of those in power. And the famous neo-liberal author, war booster, and Times editorialist Thomas J. Friedman announced his resignation on the editorial page with these opening words: “The sudden outbreak of peace in Iraq has made me realize, among other things, one incontestable fact: I have no business holding a pen, at least with intent to write.”
Even the advertisements in this “special edition” heralded a new world: petroleum giant Exxon Mobil took out a full page pledging themselves to socially and ecologically responsible energy production, explaining that while: “The invasion of Iraq was supposed to mean access to oil without the costly interference of national security, and lower prices at the pump for you and your family. Projections and reality differed, but now we’ve learned: PEACE can also be lucrative.” The Monsanto corporation unveiled their new motto — “Food. Health. Hope.” – along with their novel pest eradication technology: ladybugs. Gem giant De Beers promised, with each purchase, to donate a prosthetic hand to every African who had lost a limb in a diamond conflict. And KBR, a major defense contractor and subsidiary of the infamous Halliburton corporation, trumpeted, “the new KBR,” announcing that they were shifting their mission from the logistics of war to rebuilding the physical and human infrastructure of war-shattered countries. “We’re a solutions company,” they explained, “and we do what needs to be done.”
This remarkable course of events, as other pieces in the paper made clear, had been brought into being by the concerted actions of everyday citizens. “Popular Pressure Ushers Recent Progressive Tilt,” headlined an article on the front page that explained how grassroots advocacy had pushed President Obama and Congress to deliver on the president’s campaign message of Hope and Change. Drawing historical parallels to the New Deal and how popular pressure pushed the New Deal administration to the Left during the Great Depression, the new shift in power was detailed in a timeline, beginning with Obama’s election and the continued mobilization of progressive activists and ending with the entry: “April 16, 2009…President makes ‘Yes we really can’ speech.”
The Paper of Record, as the Times likes to refer to itself, was recording a sea change in American politics, corporate accountability and citizen activity. It was a new world… …one dated, as the careful reader might note looking up at the top of the paper, six months into the future: July 4, 2009.
The “Special Edition” of the Times was a creative act of political imagination
organized primarily by two artist-activists, Andy Bichlbaum and Steve Lambert. With the creative and logistical contributions of literally hundreds of people, they produced and distributed eighty thousand newspapers (while claiming, in true fabulist form, a circulation of 1.2 million). It was a provocative piece of political art, or rather: an artistic work of provocative politics, whose raison d’etre was expressed in the top left corner of the front page where the Times’ usual slogan: “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” was altered for one day to read: “All the News We Hope to Print.”
Response to the “Special Edition” was immediate. News organizations around the world picked up the story, CNN ran an interview with the organizers, and even the Times felt fit to comment upon it: “This is obviously a fake issue of The Times. We are looking into it.” 1 Other corporations subject to the hoax were less sanguine, with De Beers threatening, ultimately futilely, to shut down the group’s web site by putting pressure on their Swiss-based domain name registry. (In anticipation of possible lawsuits, the organizers created a limited liability company called “The Spirit of Free Speech in America” as their publisher, predicting that organizations like the Times would not want to go to court to fight a case named: The New York Times vs. The Spirit of Free Speech in America.) Art papers and political journals also ran features on the “Special Edition,” raising issues of its political efficacy and aesthetic accomplishments.2
Most outside commentators tagged the project as a “prank,” but the faux Times was something more. The purpose of a prank is to fool a person into believing one reality until another is revealed, and pranks are played upon someone, usually at their expense. This is decidedly not what the organizers of the “Special Edition” intended: “Our intention…was not to play a joke on people,” organizer Steve Lambert explained, “but make them feel as if they were in on something.3 If the audacity of the “news” itself wasn’t enough, there were copious clues that the paper wasn’t real. On the cover page the date was set in the future and the weather report concluded with the forecast: “Tomorrow: a new day.” In the fine print on the second page all pretense was dropped, with the editors explicitly explaining their project to the sharp-eyed reader.
The “Special Edition” also eluded easy categorization as irony or satire which, along with “prank,” was how the paper was frequently interpreted in subsequent news reports and commentaries. Irony expresses the exact opposite of the author’s intended meaning; satire uses ridicule to expose or denounce. But there is little that is ironic in the paper, for every article conveys the genuine political sentiments of the author and the editors of the paper. Indeed, explicit directions were given to writers not to be ironic, but to write sincere and earnest articles from the point of view of an ideal future.4(Famed New York journalist Jim Dwyer, misinterpreting the project, complained that “the faux paper was full of virtuous high-fiber material…and generally was all the fun of a steaming bowl of quinoa.”)5 There was much — pace Dwyer – that was funny in the paper, but the goal of the authors and editors was never to ridicule George W Bush, General Petraeus, Thomas Friedman, ExxonMobil, or even the New York Times itself — though Friedman proved too tempting a target to pass up entirely. These personalities and institutions were merely players and props that the creators of the paper used to lend veracity to their fantasy.
The most revealing, and insightful, response to the “Special Edition” came not from critics or corporations, but from those who first came into contact with the paper: the proverbial person on the street. Videographers following teams of volunteers as they handed out papers on November 12th recorded these responses:
“This is amazing. I know it’s fake, but it is amazing”
“It’s not real. Like what’s behind this? I can’t tell if it’s really in the Times or not.”
“I think it is amazing. It’s a great glimpse into the world as it should be”
“It’s too good to be true. But it’s not impossible”
“I think its possible if you believe”6
As I handed out copies of the paper that day I observed much the same response.7 People stopped in their tracks as they looked at the paper handed to them. Their brows wizened, their head cocked, and then, after a beat or two, they figured out that the paper they held in their hands was a fake. Depending on their politics (and early morning temperament) they either smiled and asked for extra copies to give to their friends or threw the paper in the nearest garbage can and stalked off. But for a moment, albeit a brief one, you could see them wondering.
This sense of wonder was the political response the organizers wanted. The future prefigured in the paper was not meant to be understood as a magical transformation: each event reported was described as the result of everyday citizens pushing for a more progressive agenda. Yet the experience of receiving and reading the paper was distinctly magical. The realism of the newspaper was singularly impressive: the paper, the type, the layout, even the tone and style of the articles and ads themselves were crafted to create a believable product of an imaginary future. “Part of the goal was to provide people that moment when you see that headline, and the relief that would bring, and remind them they could have that,” Lambert explained. “Talking about what if the war is over [is one thing], but when you are thrown into that reality for a moment it’s different.”8 The striking verisimilitude of the newspaper was intended to convey a sense of felt possibility. Through this artifact from an alternative reality the organizers hoped to make people stop and, for a moment, enter a dream world.9
From the very beginning, the planners of the paper decided to eschew the familiar progressive political lament over how bad things are. “The challenge isn’t to make people think that the war is a bad idea, since most people already do,” Organizer Andy Bichlbaum explained at the time. “The challenge is to make people feel it can be over now.”10 The function of the “Special Edition” was never to simply criticize the world as it was, that is: to tell people what’s wrong, rather the purpose of the paper was to create a space, a moment, within which people might feel a sense of political possibility: “to help jump-start our imaginations,” as the organizers put it.11The goal was less that of educating the audience so that they might reflect back more critically and more seeding people’s imagination so they might look forward more readily. As Bichlbaum concludes: “We wanted people to read this and say to themselves, What if?”12
For a morning, for a moment, people caught a glimpse of Utopia.
2 Ben Davis, “Oh Yes They Did!,” Artnet, November 20, 2008, no page; S.C. Squibb, “No Times Like The Future,” ArtCat, November 12, 2008, no page; Stephen Duncombe, “Times of the Future,” in “Noted” section in The Nation, December 8, 2008
3 “Andy Bichlbaum and Steve Lambert Interview,” YouTube, Posted: December 18 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaGuvcSySIE
4 Communication from organizers to authors, Fall 2008.
5 Jim Dwyer, “In 1978, a Faux Paper Was Real Genius,” About New York, New York Times, November 15, 2008.
6 “B-Roll Reactions on the Street,” November 12, 2008, http://vimeo.com/2230620; “Pranking the Media with the Fake New York Times,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vvPvaDkIUo
7 New York Times “Special Edition,” July 4, 2009. Full disclosure: I was one of the many volunteers involved in this “Special Edition” of the Times, present at initial planning meetings, later consulted on logistics, writing copy for several of the large advertisements, and distributing the paper.
8 “Andy Bichlbaum and Steve Lambert Interview,” December 18 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaGuvcSySIE
9 Guerilla futurist Stuart Candy calls this an “experiential scenario.” Stuart Candy, ‘The Futures of Everyday Life: Politics and the Design of Experiential Scenarios, doctoral dissertation, submitted August 2010, Political Science, University of Hawaii, p. 3
10 Andy Bichlbaum and Steve Lambert, CNN interview, November 14, 2008.
11 Quoted in Ben Davis, “Oh Yes They Did!,” Artnet, November 20, 2008, no page.
12Andy Bichlbaum and Steve Lambert, CNN interview, November 14, 2008.