This morning, esteemed bus terminal periodical USA Today reported stunning news: Author Cormac McCarthy had died suddenly at the age of 82. The news was posted to the paper’s Twitter account in a tweet that has since been deleted because Cormac McCarthy is not actually dead—he was only pronounced so by an Italian prankster who has made it his life’s mission to exploit the burden of efficiency that weighs on journalists everywhere.
The man’s name is Tomasso Debenedetti, and his hoaxes—from fake death pronouncements to fabricated interviews—have been covered previously by The New Yorker and The Guardian. In that Guardian article, published in 2012, Debenedetti said that “Twitter works well for deaths,” because “social media is the most unverifiable information source in the world but the news media believes it because of its need for speed.” He is absolutely correct, and his quite easily pulled-off Cormac McCarthy death hoax once again proves it.
It’s unclear if USA Today reached out to McCarthy’s representatives before announcing his death, but if so, they did not wait to hear back before going forward with Debenedetti’s story. (Editors at USA Today did not respond to requests for comment.) In any event, after the tweet went out, McCarthy’s people quickly got in touch with the paper to inform them that they were wrong. This is the reverse of how the situation is supposed to work:
UPDATE: Author Cormac McCarthy is not dead, his publicist says. A "rogue" Twitter account posted that information.— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) June 28, 2016
"Cormac McCarthy is alive and well. We have notified Twitter and we have notified our attorneys,” publicist tells @usatodaylife— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) June 28, 2016
The reporting of a celebrity’s death before any official confirmation is justifiable, but doing so requires the deepest level of confidence in a source. TMZ, for instance, constantly breaks news of deaths, and they have yet to be wrong because their sourcing in places like hospitals and police precincts is the stuff of legend. But USA Today appears to have merely aggregated the “news” of McCarthy’s “death” from a single Twitter account:
URGENT. Author Cormac McCarthy dies for stroke at 82.— Alfred A. Knopf News (@AKnopfNews) June 28, 2016
Alfred A. Knopf is the publisher of McCarthy’s books, but the @AKnopfNews account is owned by Debenedetti. Still, such a tweet might be worth checking out, were it not for the fact that any cursory investigation at all would have suggested a hoax. For one, @AKnopfNews sent its first tweet this morning:
Welcome to our Twitter news account.— Alfred A. Knopf News (@AKnopfNews) June 28, 2016
Secondly, Alfred A. Knopf has its own verified Twitter account with 280,000 followers, which it used to also reassure the world that McCarthy is still alive:
Cormac McCarthy is alive and well.— Alfred A. Knopf (@AAKnopf) June 28, 2016
This all should have been debunked quite easily, and the rest of the media was at least able to hold off on it. But it only takes one asshole to prove Debenedetti’s point—and to encourage him to keep pulling the same stunt.
This time it was USA Today—a reminder that the harsh realities of web-focused publishing is perhaps felt most acutely at the old broadsheets. Who will it be next time? Hopefully no one?