In some circles in Wisconsin, especially government workers, an e-mail has been ricocheting from in-box to in-box making an eye-popping claim.
In short: Gov. Scott Walker hired convicted Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen to oversee a raid on the state employee retirement system to help balance the state budget.
The claim is presented in what appears to be a news article by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Lee Bergquist. it is meant to mimic an online story, complete with a Jan. 13, 2011 date and a tally of reader comments.
At one point, it jumped from e-mails to the Internet, briefly appearing on a Little Chute teachers union website.
The story is a fake. And the statement is false, ridiculously so.
But the episode gives us a chance to explore, as best we can, how the piece -- apparently an attempt at satire -- made it into the public sphere.
In some ways, this is a political version of e-mails we see -- and pass along -- all the time.
You know, jokes about why the Chicago Bears still suck, or silly pictures taken of customers at Walmart.
This one left some people taking the claim seriously -- calling the governor’s office, state union leaders and the Journal Sentinel newsroom. The item reached other teachers union locals and workers in other professions, including the state Department of Corrections.
And it has become a flash point between Walker and union leaders, who already have a rocky relationship.
Here’s the gist of the non-news.
The fake story claims Walker has hired former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (not true). And that Jensen plans to use the state retirement system to help Walker balance the state budget (again, not true). It also includes this over-the-top (yet again, not true) statement:
Jensen assured police and fire officials that their pensions are safe under Governor Walker but that public employees and teachers who never put their lives on the line nor contributed to the fund ought to be worried. "Those folks need to take a long hard look in the mirror and reflect on what they have taken away from the people of Wisconsin."
The fake story goes on to "quote" Jensen comments from a (never occurred) appearance on Charlie Sykes’ radio talk show on WTMJ-AM (620).
We don’t know for certain where the fake story came from, though there have been accusations, which we will explore below.
We do know when it jumped to the Internet.
How did the item get on the Little Chute Education Association site? Union president and Little Chute High School science teacher Chris Choudoir took the blame.
He said the fake story came to him in an e-mail on Jan. 14, 2011.
He posted it on the site, which was launched in November and aimed at the union’s 130 members. In less than an hour he learned he had been punked.
"It’s not a legitimate article, so I removed it from the blog," Choudoir said. "My intention was not to propagate a false article." He sent an e-mail apologizing to his members for the posting. The item was on the site 50 minutes, he said.
He added: "That’s the problem with things in type - you don’t pick up on the sarcasm."
Choudoir said traffic for the site was high that day -- some 499 hits when he took the article down. Some of those hits came from Walker’s office, which said it received three phone calls and five or six e-mails about the matter.
Walker’s office blames the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the statewide teachers union, for spreading the false e-mail. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie noted that some copies of it bear the name of an employee who appears to work for the union and sent it to "all," including district chapters of the union.
In one response to a teacher who contacted Walker’s office, Werwie wrote: "Scott Jensen has no role in the Walker Administration and Governor Walker is not going to raid the pension fund."
Werwie concluded: "It is unfortunate that instead of working to be part of the solution the union who represents you, which claims to have your best interests in mind, spends its time spreading lies and making up fake news stories."
WEAC denied responsibility for the e-mail.
"We can’t confirm where the e-mail came from," said spokeswoman Christina Brey. "We didn’t generate it."
Brey said union leadership told its regional directors about the item and told them "no, this is not right. It’s a hoax." She added: "We’ve taken internal action to make sure that news articles are authenticated."
Let’s take a deep breath.
Someone -- it’s unclear who -- tried to give the "Weekend Update" fake news treatment to a topic that clearly has public employees concerned. Walker has promised that cuts will be made in public employee benefits and suggested the state could reduce union bargaining rights. It may have been a bit of satirical venting, but not everyone got the joke.
PolitiFact’s national site has evaluated 90 chain e-mails, and found many of them to contain simply ridiculous claims. This fake news story joins the heap.
Feel free to forward these words: Pants on Fire.
Little Chute Education Association website
Interview, Chris Choudoir, Little Chute Education Association, Jan. 17, 2011
Interview, Christina Brey, spokeswoman, Wisconsin Education Association Council, Jan. 19, 2011
E-mails, interviews, Cullen Werwie, spokesman, Gov. Scott Walker. Jan. 19 and 20, 2011
Read About Our Process
In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.