The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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An embarrassment for Universal: Fabricated news stories

November 13, 2009 | 12:39 pm

This is the time of year when movie studios do their part to support America's economically challenged journalistic institutions -- at least publications like the L.A. Times, Variety and the New York Times -- by buying big chunks of Oscar ads to promote the season's leading awards contenders. But Universal Pictures has outdone all its rivals. The studio just paid $20,000 to the Alaska Press Club as part of a settlement with several Alaska newspapers after the studio, in the course of promoting its current release, "The Fourth Kind," created an elaborate series of online news stories that professed to be from real Alaska news publications.

The_fourth_kind_poster The film claims to be a true story about an outbreak of alien abduction occurring a decade ago in Nome, Alaska. As Fairbanks' Daily News-Miner reports:

"To bolster that claim, articles were posted that professed to be from real Alaska publications, but were actually created to bolster the movie's storyline. The articles included an obituary and news story about the death of a character in the movie, Dr. William Tyler, that supposedly were from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Neither the story nor the obituary ever appeared in the newspaper. Fake articles were listed from other newspapers in Alaska, including the Nome Nugget, alongside authentic news stories. Part of the settlement requires Universal to remove the fake 'news articles' promoting the movie from the Internet."

An attorney representing the Alaskan newspapers said the fake stories undermine newspaper credibility, since "if people can't rely on the fact that when they look at a news article on the Web that it's from the newspaper it appears to be ... it erodes confidence in the world of journalism." The good news is that Universal's $20,000 immediately doubled the Alaska Press Club's annual revenues (I'm not joking).

Although the scam is something of a black eye for Universal, I'd be hard pressed to call it a threat against the future of journalism. If the movie had simply used fictional newspapers instead of real ones, no one would have ever raised a fuss. But in today's Hollywood, where people often float preposterous claims about movie budgets or test screenings, no one seems to notice the difference between reality and make believe. Studios also routinely use all sorts of questionable stealth Web marketing tactics to create viral buzz for their movies. It was just this July that the Wall Street Journal exposed 20th Century Fox for paying a high school valedictorian to plug the studio's "I Love You, Beth Cooper" in her valedictory address, which the studio promptly put up on YouTube, attempting to pass it off as an authentic homemade video.

Still, it's always embarrassing to be caught, even if the stunt seems more clumsy than conspiratorial. Clearly chagrined, a Universal spokesperson e-mailed me the following statement, which if nothing else  makes it clear that the studio should hire a good reporter so its apologies wouldn't sound so stilted and awkward. Here's what Universal has to say:

 "An early element of the online promotional campaign for 'The Fourth Kind' used stories published by some news outlets without permission and inaccurately attributed other stories to papers that were not their origin. When Universal Pictures came to recognize this tactic as overzealous, it immediately removed these stories from the Internet well before the film's release and entered into a mutually satisfactory resolution with the outlets. The film itself challenges conventional beliefs by presenting cases of alien abduction and asking viewers to make up their own minds about its content. Universal regrets that this isolated element of the marketing for the film took this speculation a step too far."