No, the War Is Not Over

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Fake New York Times homepage dated July, 4, 2009

This was no amateur prank. Solid information is scant, but one thing is certain: a well-funded, well-organized, highly motivated group of people (good at keeping a secret of massive proportions) wants to get the word out that the Iraq war should end. At least by July 4, 2009.

New York commuters exited subways and turned street corners Nov. 12 to be greeted by friendly hawkers all over the city handing out copies of the New York Times. Some thought the Times had finally printed enough extra copies of its Nov. 5 edition with Barack Obama's victory front page so that there was one for everybody. But the papers were suspiciously free and had this massive headline across the top: "IRAQ WAR ENDS." Hmm. A closer look revealed that the papers, dated July 4, 2009, weren't the product of the New York Times but an elaborately constructed copycat version with articles like:

"USA Patriot Act Repealed"
"All Public Universities to Be Free"
"Nation Sets Its Sites on Building a Sane Economy"

According to a press release purporting to be from the group that organized the stunt, the "special editions" required six months of planning, 1.2 million papers were distributed and thousands of people participated in the process. The stunt also included a website — which is frequently overloaded and therefore slow — where users could read fake stories, click on ads and watch animated versions of those ads printed in the paper. Here's the text for a few dubious ones:

For American Apparel — whose billboards and print ads feature scantily clad employees posing as models — which has been under fire from pro-union groups:

We've been
... but now we are unionizing our employees.
Because we care about what they have to say,
as well as what they look like.*
*Due to new federal regulations

For De Beers, featuring a human hand with a diamond ring reaching out to an artificial hand:

You know it ... we know it.
Your purchase of a diamond will enable us
to donate a prosthetic for an African
whose hand was lost in diamond conflicts.
De Beers — From her fingers, to his.

Under an article titled "The Fine Print," the creators of the newspapers explained, "The dozens of volunteer citizens who produced this paper spent the last eight years dreaming of a better world for themselves, their friends and any descendants they might end up having. Today, that better world, though still very far away, is finally possible — but only if millions of us demand it and finally force our government to do its job." The article went on to direct readers to a host of advocacy groups pushing various liberal agendas, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, Friends of the Earth, the ACLU and National Coalition for the Homeless.

An e-mail sent around ahead of the prank solicited volunteers for such posts as a "digital fun squad," "legal support" and "press liaison." The media gossip blog Gawker printed a bulletin supposedly from the organizers that told volunteers to find strategically located U-Haul trucks (which held the papers) around the city. Going for an ultimate guerilla effect, the bulletin said, "We want to maintain maximum mystery around this, for as long as possible — at least for a couple of days."

Well, mystery abounds. What's next for the group? Was the point really just to give New Yorkers a chuckle or trick them into thinking for few fleeting minutes that U.S. involvement in Iraq had ended? By midday, the groups posted a video account of the prank, with interviews with readers around New York City. Some reports said the fake-out was nationwide, but the video was shot all in New York, and accounts of the stunt seemed limited to the actual home of the Times.

And how does the New York Times feel about being parodied and satirized? A spokeswoman told an (actual) Times blogger, "We are in the process of finding out more about it."