“Is this a great fucking country or what?”
Gary Greenberg, the psychotherapist who had unintentionally convinced journalists around the country that he had grown up toking up with a New York Times columnist, was having a good day. Greenberg’s essay, a takedown of David Brooks’ anti-pot confessional column written as if Greenberg and Brooks were childhood smoking buddies, had become easily the most popular piece ever published on Greenberg’s personal blog. He had gotten interest from (among others) The Atlantic, The Washington Examiner, and The Huffington Post.
“First of all,” Greenberg said, “almost everyone thinks it’s true.”
Including, for a time, me. Like almost all of the writers I follow on Twitter, I initially read Greenberg’s satire as genuine, a biting reflection from a friend that Brooks said had become so dangerously dependent on marijuana that the Timesman had foresworn the drug forever for fear of ending up like Gary. It was a little piece of internet gold, new media reaching out and very uncomfortably tapping the old on its shoulder.
In retrospect, this all should have been obvious. A simple click to Greenberg’s bio page shows that he’s the author of four books; his essays had appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and, er, The New York Times. Googling his name directs you to a biting criticism of Brooks’ book The Social Animal in The Nation. And the idea that young David Brooks had lectured his choom gang on “what Jefferson really meant by the ‘pursuit of happiness’” fails the smell test by an epically preposterous margin.
But for a few brief hours, none of this mattered. Some of the world’s important reporters and columnists were broadcasting Greenberg’s “memoir” as if it were true, choking down their morning coffee through guffaws at the image of Brooks madly declaiming “one of us, one of us, gobble gobble gobble” in the middle of a high school English presentation. How did this happen?
It all started around 9 A.M. Eastern on Friday morning, when Greenberg first tweeted the faux-confessional. Incensed by Brooks’ column, he had dashed out the essay in about an hour and a half. “I’m only slightly more ashamed of that than if I had spent an hour and a half looking at porn,” Greenberg told me.
The point wasn’t to trick anyone. “It never occurred to me that anyone” — he starts laughing at himself — “I mean, come on.” The point, rather, was to help people sort out just exactly what it was that bothered people about Brooks’ negative reflections on his pot-smoking days.
“You know it really annoys the shit outta ya, but you don’t know why,” Greenberg says. “[Satire] helps you to sharpen your own critical focus, in part by playing with the idea of what’s real and what isn’t, what’s plausible and what isn’t.”
But Twitter took the question of the piece’s authenticity out of Greenberg’s hands. Greenberg has a very small twitter following, 367 followers as of this afternoon. But he’s an accomplished writer, and so that following contained some more Twitter-friendly journalists who were likely familiar with his work. His initial tweet — which contained just a link, with no indication the piece was ironic — was retweeted by Julie Hyman, BloombergTV market correspondent (6,157 followers), and the official Full Stop Magazine account (4,024 followers), among several others.
Which of these retweets, exactly, caught the attention of the mainstream media is very hard to see, but the most likely path is through Atlantic Cities drug policy correspondent Mike Riggs. Riggs has a wide following among online journalists, and many of the early tweets about Greenberg credit Riggs with the discovery. “Someone I follow retweeted Greenberg,” Riggs said, “but I don’t remember who.”
Another possible vector is the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein, who tweeted the piece twice to his 125,000 followers around 10:30. “I vote that this Gary Greenberg piece is, sadly, satire,” Stein followed up, “but @aterkel [Huffing Post political reporter Amanda Terkel] is voting that it’s real.”
Within roughly twenty minutes of Stein’s tweets, Greenberg’s piece had become the talk of the Internet. “Exceptional,” Glenn Greenwald wrote, adding that there’s “lots of talk about how the Gary Greenberg post about Brooks is satire, not real — if so, it’s great satire.” The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney snapped back at one tweet calling anyone who believed Greenberg an idiot by saying “Idiots? That’s about a dozen good journalist friends of mine you’re talking about.”
Despite debunkings from Wired’s Steve Silberman and Business Insider’s Josh Barro, the feeding frenzy continued. Around noon, the Wall Street Journal’s tech columnist, Farhad Manjoo, was touting Greenberg’s piece as proof that new media disseminates truths that would have remained buried otherwise.
Finally, Brooks himself was forced to deny the story. “I’ve never heard of” Gary Greenberg, he told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza around 12:30. Scene.
It’s easy to see this all as a story about the pitfalls of getting your information from social media. That’s almost certainly part of it: the most plausible part of Greenberg’s narrative was near the top of the essay, and he peppered the piece with details about Brooks’ high school and hometown taken from Wikipedia. Journalists may well have read the first part of Greenberg’s column and shared it before finishing, missing the tall tales that make up the essay’s climax.
But that’s not the whole story. Many of the early Tweets mentioned some of the more ridiculous parts (Stein, for one, tweeted the “gobble, gobble, gobble” bit), and that didn’t seem to turn a lot of people off. Instead, it seems more likely that many journalists simply wanted to believe in a David Brooks who let a black kid take the blame for Brooks’ pot-smoking because “if he got in a little trouble, it might be good for him.”