Almost by definition, “serious” journalists can’t laugh at their profession, much less themselves.

I learned that – for the 100th time – when I was part of a satirical but earnest effort to trademark the term “fake news.” I also learned many other journalists aren’t serious enough to do their own reporting.

This happened a couple months ago, and as I look back on 2019, it’s my favorite project of the year – and not for anything I did. It was because a bunch of Canadians and a 25-year-old Florida reporter pissed off serious journalists and right-wing assholes for the right reasons…

Mark of the devil

At a journalism convention in 2018, a friend introduced me to some young executives at an edgy Canadian ad agency called Wax. Yes, I know “Canadian” and “edgy” go together like “Canadian” and “bacon.” But Wax had a clever idea to support U.S. journalism…

What if we applied to trademark “fake news”? And then sent cease-and-desist letters every time Trump or anyone else (mis)used the phrase?

…but they needed a partner south of their border.

So the Wax executives volunteered to produce – and more importantly, pay for – a slick video explaining the trademarking concept. All they asked in return: Would the Society of Professional Journalists promote it? At the time, I was SPJ’s longest-serving national board member. I said sure.

The result was FakeNewsTM.com.

In October, I mailed a cease-and-desist letter to the White House and recruited SPJ’s Florida chapter president to be our spokesperson. Emily Bloch, a 25-year-old newspaper reporter in Jacksonville, spoke with a dozen media outlets. The resulting stories fell into four predictable categories…

1. Lazy curation

Most reporters never spoke with Bloch, me, or anyone at the Wax ad agency. They just scanned other coverage and cut-and-pasted a story. The risk is obvious: If just one of those stories makes a mistake, it echoes around the Internet forever.

Despite what some serious journalists think, curating coverage isn’t evil. Done right, it’s an efficient way to spread news to more readers. Problem is, many media outlets screw it up.

in this case, most didn’t report the difference between applying for a trademark and actually getting one. I filled out a long application and paid the U.S. Patent Office $285 for the privilege of waiting seven weeks to hear if I’d be granted the right to put the little letters TM on the end of “fake news” – and then sue others for trademark violations.

Of course, the Patent Office would never give me a trademark for such a broad and commonly used term. I won’t delve into the vagaries of trademark law, but suffice to say, you can’t do that.

So it was that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation mentioned Wax in this headline: “Calgary agency gets Trump served with cease-and-desist letter for saying ‘fake news’.” But the CBC added, “Trademark success unlikely, but conversation still worth having, says creative director.”

The story explained…

It’s not about whether the trademark is ultimately approved or rejected; the goal is to have a conversation — even if it is a bit cheeky at times — about critical thinking and media literacy.

Then Newsweek picked up the story, quoting the CBC report but simply mentioning our effort was “a tongue-in-cheek move they hope will spark a conversation.”

By the time it got to The Daily Dot, the headline devolved into, “Canadian Agency Trademarks The Phrase ‘Fake News’ And Send Trump A Cease And Desist Letter” – as if we’d already received the trademark.

The story also said (incorrectly) that “according to Newsweek” we’d come up “with a new tactic for shutting Trump up.” Newsweek never said that because we never said that. Nothing can shut up Trump.

The very last paragraph concedes…

The trademark is not officially approved yet, and it might not get approved. Some things can’t be trademarked once they’ve been circulating in popular culture for too long, and this is obviously meant as more of a stunt than a brand issue.

Of course, reporters never read to the end of stories, so by the time ours got to The Drum, the headline declared, “SPJ trademarks ‘fake news’ and sends Trump a cease and desist letter.”

2. Predictable outrage

Right-wing media need outrage the way fire needs oxygen, so Bloch and I were happy to provide the fuel for a day.

Because Bloch freelances for Teen Vogue and wrote a first-person account of what we were trying to do – and because Teen Vogue has criticized Trump – that became the focus of the right-wing coverage. It’s amazing how similar the headlines were…

  • Red State: “A Writer for ‘Teen Vogue’ Tries to Trademark ‘Fake News’ so Trump Can’t Say it Anymore”
  • Daily Caller: “Teen Vogue Writer Tries To Trademark ‘Fake News’ So Trump Can’t Say It Anymore”
  • The Blaze: “Teen Vogue writer claims her journalism club is trying to trademark ‘Fake News’ to stop President Trump from using it”

Only The Daily Caller included this explanation: “Bloch concluded the article by making it clear that the group did not expect to succeed in trademarking ‘fake news.'” And like the left-leaning Daily Dot, they did it at the very end of the story. Burying the news peg seems to be bipartisan.

3. Actual reporting

A few big media outlets got it right – including the New York Post (“Group applies to trademark ‘fake news’ to stop Trump from using it”) and New York Daily News (“Group of journalists attempt to trademark the president’s ‘Fake News’ mantra”).

Meanwhile, The New York Times refused to mention us at all. A reporter contacted Bloch but said her editors decided it wasn’t worthy – because the trademark would eventually be denied. The reporter even asked an attorney just to be sure.

Bloch had a hell of a time explaining we already knew that. But that was better than the serious journalists who accused us of fake news.

4. Journalistic umbrage

My favorite serious journalist of that week was Paul Singer, the “investigations editor” with something called the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. He’s also a reporter with WGBH, a nationally lauded PBS station in Boston.

“This is evidently fake news in itself,” Paul Singer emailed SPJ’s national president. “Why on earth would SPJ make the fake claim that it has trademarked ‘fake news’ in a fake video to combat fake news?”

SPJ’s president wanted nothing to do with this and referred Singer to me. (Journalists love covering other people’s controversies, but they freak out when they get sucked into one.)

Singer explained his irritation like this: “One of my colleagues in the newsroom sends around a note suggesting this might be a news item, and I have to spend my evening preventing us from falling victim to your fake news.”

I replied…

For my part, I believe journalists take themselves way too seriously, and I really doubt this clever effort is going to sour any citizen on their support for a free press. If they learn now or later that this is a real attempt (which it is) that’s doomed to fail (which it is), then I’m happy if they learned something along the way.

I am curious, however, how you spent your “evening preventing us from falling victim to your fake news.” What did that involve?

Singer grumpily replied that his reporters thought this was a nice, light story. So he spent his evening studying trademark law. “By the end of the first inning of the World Series, I was able to tell my news team to stand down, because it is either satire or a lie.”

This exchange also reinforced another theory I have: Most “serious” journalists love baseball – the most boring and self-important of the major sports.

Cunty commentary

If serious journalists were irked and partisan journalists were offended, a few readers were irate.

“I’ve never been called a cunt so many times in my life,” Bloch told me. “I didn’t even realize that word was still used so often.”

I sure did. But I’ve traveled in more unsavory circles than Bloch.

I admire Bloch because she’s not your typical thin-skinned journalist. Besides doctors who smoke, I can’t think of anything more hypocritical than reporters who get defensive. But Bloch embraced the insults. My favorite was this…

YOU are fake news. I’m going to copyright being cunty, and you won’t be able to talk anymore.

…which Bloch made her Twitter header for a week. She only changed it when another right-wing outlet, NewsMax, called our effort “an awesome display of arrogance and ignorance” and accused Bloch of “moral vanity,” whatever that is.

Bloch gently trolled NewsMax by spinning its clumsy sarcasm as praise…

It was about this time I realized all the irate journalists and readers had one thing in common: They were dudes. The result was that Bloch was called a bitch far more often than I’ve ever been called an asshole.

But like I said, she wasn’t triggered. Bloch didn’t block the trolls. She casually replied to them. Like this…

I don’t know if we taught anyone a damn thing about fake news, but I learned a lot about real reporters and readers. I also learned Bloch might represent a wise new generation of journalists.

She grew up in the Internet era, went to college when trolling became a popular weapon, and began her career during the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. She’s grown a thick skin, but not at the cost of her soul. She proves that journalists can be Cadberry eggs: Tough on the outside, gooey on the inside.

Looking back on 2019, this was my favorite project, simply because it might’ve given me a glimpse into the future of journalism, if that future is Bloch.

Canadian closure

Not surprisingly, our Canadians comrades were both amused and confused by our results down south. When I asked for grand conclusions from Nick Asik, Wax’s creative director in Calgary, he told me…

I’d say it went better than expected. Having worked on a few campaigns in the past that have received mainstream media coverage, we were anticipating some, but the attention did exceed our modest expectations.

Still, he marveled at two American traits…

  1. “We learned is how truly divided [your] society is between left and right. Even though the people on the right knew it was satire, they were still offended by the joke.”
  2. “Seeing all the ‘lawyers’ in the comments sections explaining in detail why the trademark application will never succeed – despite the fact that we clearly stated it’s satire – was fun to read.”

Asik concluded, “The funniest part for me was my mother calling and yelling at me because she thinks I’ll never be able to cross the border again.”

There are worse things.