The story had sex, violence and, well, more sex. In other words, the "Hunting for Bambi" controversy was a dream come true for the news media and outraged commentators. Too bad it was a scam.
In mid-July, a Web site advertised that, for a fat fee, men could "hunt" naked women with paintball guns in the Nevada desert. A Las Vegas television station was the first to report on the "Bambi hunts," and predictably, a storm of condemnation followed.
All along, some online observers and a few print journalists raised questions about the site and its owner, Michael Burdick: Were the hunts Burdick was selling real? Or was the whole thing a well-executed stunt to get publicity for his X-rated video business?
Burdick finally admitted recently that the hunts were a hoax, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, confirming the skeptics' doubts. But the larger question remains unanswered: Did determining the truth about an Internet site offering "Bambi hunts" ever really matter to news media fueled by sensational stories; to the public appetite for the tacky and bizarre; or to columnists and pundits who get outraged for a living?
Wired.com reporter Leander Kahney, who has investigated his share of online hoaxes, attributes some of the Bambi-mania to the Internet. "The Internet is very viral and news spreads quickly," he said. "People just aren't skeptical enough."
The nature of the Bambi hunts stoked the story, said J.D. Lasica, senior editor at the Online Journalism Review, a Web site published by the University of Southern California's journalism school.
"A story editor at a newspaper or TV station tends to see it as a soft-news feature, a story about what a wacky world we live in," he said. "They won't commit the resources to tracking down its truthfulness because it's too good to pass up, and they don't believe the subject matter warrants serious treatment."
Here is how the Bambi hoax virally "infected" the Internet and mainstream media:
KLAS-TV in Las Vegas on July 10 was the first news outlet to report on the Bambi Web site and the hunts. The station's managing editor, Eric Hulnick, says reporter LuAnne Sorrell first heard about the site through a press release that was e-mailed to several reporters at the station.
On July 13, a link to the story on KLAS' Web site appeared on Fark.com, a "news of the weird" site that gets a million hits a day. The next day, the KLAS-Bambi link showed up on Metafilter.com, another popular alternative news site, and soon that link was popping up on sites all over the Internet.
It wasn't long before more-mainstream news outlets joined in on Bambi-hunting stories. Between July 15 and July 18, stories from UPI, Reuters and the Fox News Web site were picked up by other media organizations.
In the stories and interviews, no one pressed Burdick much for proof of the Bambi hunts - the names of satisfied customers, receipts, and so forth. In a July 17 Fox News interview with Burdick, commentator Bill O'Reilly called the Bambi tale "sad but true." In a segment on CNN the same day, anchor Anderson Cooper also presented the story as true and interviewed the mayor of Las Vegas, Burdick and others in a straightforward manner.
The July 16 Fox News online story quoted Burdick and his Web site, a woman identified as "Taylor" - no last name - who said she was one of the "Bambi" targets, and a legal expert, then it added a quote from an outraged feminist leader attributed to a New York Post story. The Post story was even skimpier; its only other source was a Bambi spokesman named "Paul" who was quoted as saying 20 hunts had taken place.
By that point, it didn't seem to matter how skeptical or thorough the reporting was - the tale had taken on a life of its own. "A Web site can spread some story around, and if a newspaper somewhere picks it up, that's when it goes haywire," says Drew Curtis of Fark.com, who gets hundreds of "tips" for his site that turn out to be hoaxes. "It seems like anything that hits the wire services gets picked up verbatim."
Few journalists paid heed to Snopes.com, a site devoted to debunking hoaxes, which posted a skeptical entry about the story soon after it broke. By July 19, the Snopes folks were saying they thought the Bambi site was a scam. As proof, the Snopes diggers unearthed an earlier version of the Web site that was still accessible: That site said nothing about men being able to buy Bambi hunts; it only promoted naked "hunting" videos.
The print press in Las Vegas also helped expose Burdick. The Las Vegas Sun reported July 17 that Burdick's business license was for selling videos ("no porn," his application said) - not Bambi safaris. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that day that the "hunter" KLAS interviewed was a producer of topless videos who, if he was to be believed, came up with $4,000 for his Bambi hunt despite living in a tiny condo in a seedy part of Vegas.
But by this time, America's pundits and columnists were in full outrage mode. Kathleen Parker of the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune-owned newspaper, wrote a column roundly denouncing Burdick - for holding the hunts. Later, she wrote to a journalism Web site saying she subsequently realized the hunts might be a hoax.
In her letter to the Poynter.org journalism site, Parker said that "if it was indeed a hoax, it was an elaborate one. It also changes nothing about the substance of my column, which was general commentary on the culture that 'coughed up' the idea of Bambi hunts."
In an anti-Bambi column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, columnist Sylvester Brown Jr. noted the Snopes site's doubts, but went on to say that "the company's legitimacy doesn't really matter now," because someone, no doubt, would copy the idea.
By its nature, the Internet lends itself to pranks. A fake news item recently announced that Metallica was suing another rock band for using the E and F "power chords," a silly tale that got notice before it was debunked.
But speaking to the larger issue, Lasica, via e-mail, commented: "I'm always amazed at the credulity of people who tend to believe something just because they read it on the Internet. We need to fine-tune our B.S. meters by expressing skepticism each time we come across a far-out story from an unverified source."
Legitimacy and verifiability matter a lot to the folks at the Smoking Gun Web site, which, despite covering all manner of celebrity foibles and stupid human tricks, relies almost solely on "sworn documents": court documents, contracts, police reports and the like.
"People don't pick up the phone anymore," says Smoking Gun reporter Joseph Jesselli of the credulity of some of his fellow journalists. "It's just flat-out laziness."
Such a hard-nosed attitude is more necessary than ever. But by its very nature, the truth has become increasingly elusive on the Internet. And that cool Web log you've been reading? It could be part of an ad campaign; Kahney says that everyone from MasterCard to Lee Jeans to the marketers of the movie A.I. have used the Internet to create buzz about their products - while fudging the fact that the sites are corporate creations.
The post-Sept. 11 online rumor mill put the lives of Muslim-Americans in jeopardy, alleging, among other things, that specific doughnut shop owners on the East Coast had celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center. Other false and potentially dangerous rumors are constantly circulating on the Internet.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.