Did the conservative website Breitbart get snagged by a hoax? It sure looks that way.
Breitbart’s man in California, senior editor Joel Pollak, posted a short item on June 14, 2015, about a Los Angeles Times op-ed that cast the state flag as the legacy of thieves, deserters and genocidal maniacs. We’ll skip the history lesson, but the bottom line of the op-ed was that the flag and its picture of a grizzly bear should be given the heave-ho.
Pollak observed that ardent liberals have shown the bear some love, but what caught our eye was his closing line.
"According to snopes.com, the inclusion of a bear in the flag was a mistake; it was supposed to be a pear."
Soon after the article went live, a few readers commented that Breitbart had been snookered. The Snopes article, they said, was a ruse. The item Pollak cited held that the original founders of the California Republic wanted to use a pear as the central image on their new flag, but through a typo or bad penmanship, the first mock-up used a bear instead.
The website provided its rendition of the initial concept.
The Snopes article laid in some heavy hints that it was hokum. For starters, it listed the California rebel leaders as "Captain Jebediah Bartlett and his two lieutenants, Albert Bosc and Emmanuel d'Anjou."
Snopes, the grand-daddy of the fact-checking sites in America, was founded in the 1990s to counteract the spread of rumors on the Web. This raises the question, why did it post a hoax of its own?
Snopes' founders say it is to combat what they call False Authority Syndrome.
"No single truth purveyor, no matter how reliable, should be considered an infallible font of accurate information," they wrote. "Folks make mistakes. Or they get duped. Or they have a bad day at the fact-checking bureau. Or some days they're just being silly."
That message is on a page on their site, with the link posted at the bottom of the article about the California flag.
To keep their own readers on their toes, Snopes seeded its website with a few ringers. It has written that Mr. Ed the talking horse was actually a zebra, that passengers on the Titanic watched a silent version of The Poseidon Adventure as their own ship went down, and that mobile homes were named after the city that first built them.
Co-founder David Mikkelson told us that team Snopes put a lot of effort into making these articles as ridiculous and humorous as possible. The California pear item, posted around 2003, was one of the last to go up, and there are no plans to add more.
"Given the plethora of fake news sites on the Web these days, our creating more stories to illustrate the pitfalls of false authority would seem awfully redundant," Mikkelson said.
The pear story has been snagging the unwary since at least 2005. According to this blog post, the Long Beach Press Telegram repeated the tale in February that year. The blogger who reported that also wrote that he went to the trouble to research Captain Bartlett and Lieutenants Bosc and d’Anjou. After, dare we say, a fruitless effort, he ultimately found the link to the disclaimer on Snopes.
Via Twitter, we asked Pollak at Breitbart about the pear reference.
Here, we’re actually fact-checking the claim that Snopes in any way took the pear fable seriously. Pollak isn’t the first to pass along this hoax, nor likely will he be the last. But know this: It’s wrong. We rate this claim Pants on Fire.