A Senior Fellow at the Institute of Nonexistence
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA | November 13, 2008
It was among the juicier post-election recriminations: Fox News Channel quoted an unnamed McCain campaign figure as saying that 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Gorlin and vouches for his identity, and Mr. 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. ...)
The pranksters behind Eisenstadt acknowledge that he was not, through them, the anonymous source of the Palin leak. He just claimed falsely that he was the leaker--and they say they have no reason to cast doubt on the original story. For its part, Fox News Channel continues to stand behind its story.
Mr. Gorlin and Mr. Mirvish 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 Mr. Mirvish, 40.
Mr. 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 Mr. Gorlin and Mr. 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 Rudolph W. Giuliani. Those videos attracted tens of thousands of Internet hits and a bit of news media attention.
When Mr. Giuliani dropped out of the presidential race, the character morphed into Eisenstadt, a parody of a blowhard cable news commentator.
Mr. 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 Senator John 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.
The inventors fabricated the Harding Institute, named for one of the most scorned presidents, and made Eisenstadt a senior fellow.
It didn’t hurt that a man named Michael Eisenstadt is a real expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is quoted in the mainstream media. The real Mr. Eisenstadt said in an interview that he was only dimly aware of the fake one, and that his main concern was that people understood that “I had nothing to do with this.”
Before long Mr. Gorlin and Mr. Mirvish had produced a short documentary on Martin Eisenstadt, supposedly for the BBC, posted in several parts on YouTube.
In June they produced what appeared to be an interview with Eisenstadt on Iraqi television promoting construction of a casino in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Then they sent out a news release in which he apologized. Outraged Iraqi bloggers protested the casino idea.
Among the Americans who took that bait was Jonathan Stein, a reporter for Mother Jones. A few hours later Mr. Stein put up a post on the magazine’s political blog, with the title “Hoax Alert: Bizarre ‘McCain Adviser’ Too Good to Be True,” and explained how he had been fooled.
In July, after the McCain campaign compared Senator Barack Obama to Paris Hilton, the Eisenstadt blog said “the phone was burning off the hook” at McCain headquarters, with angry calls from Ms. Hilton’s grandfather and others. A Los Angeles Times political blog, among others, retold the story, citing Eisenstadt by name and linking to his blog.
Last month Eisenstadt blogged that Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, Joe the Plumber, was closely related to Charles Keating, the disgraced former savings and loan chief. It wasn’t true, but other bloggers ran with it.
Among those taken in by Monday’s confession about the Palin Africa report was The New Republic’s political blog. Later the magazine posted this atop the entry: “Oy — this would appear to be a hoax. Apologies.”
But the truth was out for all to see long before the big-name take-downs. For months sourcewatch.org has identified Martin Eisenstadt as a hoax. When Mr. Stein was the victim, he blogged that “there was enough info on the Web that I should have sussed this thing out.”
And then there is William K. Wolfrum, a blogger who has played Javert to Eisenstadt’s Valjean, tracking the hoaxster across cyberspace and repeatedly debunking his claims. Mr. Gorlin and Mr. Mirvish praised his tenacity, adding that the news media could learn something from him.
“As if there isn’t enough misinformation on this election, it was shocking to see so much time wasted on things that didn’t exist,” Mr. Wolfrum said in an interview.
And how can we know that Mr. Wolfrum is real and not part of the hoax?
Long pause. “Yeah, that’s a tough one.”