Faux Real: Media Lessons for a Digital Age


Dan Sinker, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College, is the man behind @MayorEmanuel. Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil.

3.10.11 | As you may have heard, the person behind @MayorEmanuel—the fake, foul-mouthed Twitter alter ego of Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel—is Dan Sinker, an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College in Chicago.

What you might not know is that Sinker specializes in teaching digital and mobile journalism and is the creator of the mobile storytelling project CellStories.net.

Besides its political implications, Sinker’s performance as @MayorEmanuel sparked a conversation about the power of social media and the nature of a new journalism. Alexis Madrigal, who outed Sinker last week in The Atlantic, made a case for Sinker’ as a type of digital revolutionary:

The profane, brilliant stream of tweets not only may be the most entertaining feed ever created, but it pushed the boundaries of the medium, making Twitter feel less like a humble platform for updating your status and more like a place where literature could happen. Never deviating too far from the reality of the race itself, @MayorEmanuel wove deep, hilarious stories. It was next-level digital political satire and caricature, but over the months the account ran, it became much more. By the end, the stream resembled an epic, allusive ode to the city of Chicago itself, yearning and lyrical.

Jim DeRogatis, music and cultural critic, was one of the few who dissented, stating that it was “nothing more than a solipsistic digital prank that has more in common with the desperate bids for celebrity regularly seen on reality TV than it does with either real political/investigative reportage or useful and meaningful social and political satire.”

The commenters on DeRogatis’ piece, for the most part, disagreed with his harsh assessment—and saw Sinker, if not revolutionary, as an effective satirist.

In any case, Sinker’s tweeting made him famous enough to appear Tuesday on The Colbert Report:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Dan Sinker
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Colbert himself couldn’t help taking a jab at the contradictions that Sinker represents by asking (in Colbert fashion) if Sinker teaches his journalism students “how to lie.”

Putting aside truth and lies for a moment, Sinker’s students likely learned more about the storytelling power of Twitter and the ability of one individual to create a platform that was supremely entertaining—and politically astute—than could be covered in most semester-long classes. 

Questions about truth in journalism are, of course, essential and take on even greater importance in the digital age as news travels faster and to more corners of the world. One of the sites that is pushing the conversation is the UK-based Churnalism.com, which makes it easy to expose the practice of journalists “churning” out the news by cutting and pasting wholesale from press releases. Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, which is behind the site, recently discussed the project at PBS’ Idea Lab and on NPR’s “On the Media.”

The site initially received publicity for sending out fake stories through press releases—and seeing which journalists would report the stories without checking the rather easily obtainable facts. Hats off to Chicago: WGN-TV ran with a just-in-time-for-Valentine’s-Day story on the “chastity garter belt,” which allegedly could reveal if a woman was about to cheat on her husband or boyfriend (it apparently was a heteronormative device) by monitoring body temperature and pulse rate.

“The story was picked up by The Times of India, in the States, in Slovakia, in Greece, in Israel, all around the world,” said Moore, explaining the domino effect of unverified news.

Beyond sparking debates about the line between PR and “real” journalism, though, it also revealed that media literacy isn’t just for kids. Being a critical media consumer requires a broader educational movement. Interrogating the source and authenticity of the information we receive—whether it comes from Twitter or more traditional news outlets—is a good start.

At the end of Sinker’s run as @MayorEmanuel, the real Rahm Emanuel made good on a promise to donate $5,000 to his alter-ego’s favorite charity. Sinker chose Young Chicago Authors, a dynamic organization that encourages young people to express themselves through writing, publishing and performance. The group is behind the widely popular Louder Than a Bomb spoken-word competition—the subject of a new documentary—and publishes Say What magazine.

Young Chicago Authors recently sponsored a day-long event exploring how youth are represented in the media and how young people can create their own media to challenge stereotypes and to tell their own stories (view Spotlight’s coverage). That’s the very real power of today’s media age—making it easier for everyone to have a voice.

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