Day 260: The Devil Went Down And Pretended To Invade Georgia

originally published September 16, 2012

Studies have shown (and no, I won’t be linking to these studies or adding a footnote, mostly because I’m just making this up) that a disproportionate number of North Americans get their news primarily from either The Daily Show, the “Weekend Update” segments on Saturday Night Live, or the monologues of Letterman, Kimmel, Fallon, Ferguson, and (if they aren’t picky) Leno.

Some may argue that we should be worried about this. That people should learn about the goings-on in the world from reputable sources, from serious people delivering serious journalism in a more serious venue, like a newspaper, the internet, or Fox News. But at least the masses who learned of Congressman Anthony Weiner’s tweeted wiener picture from Jon Stewart are aware of the consistent tongue placed in the cheek of their news. Picking apart the fact from the comedy isn’t too much of a challenge for a medium-size brain.

But over in Georgia – that’s the former Soviet republic, not the land of peaches, Scarlett O’Hara and Matt Ryan – they expect their news to be news and their comedy to be comedy. I’m not even sure what comedy looks like over there.

On March 13, 2010, Imedi TV, one of the big networks in the country, blurred the line. More accurately, they pooped all over the line then made their audience walk through it.

A typical Georgian Saturday night, at least for those who don’t spend their evenings drinking an excess of vodka and… I don’t know, throwing potatoes at things or whatever they do in Georgia, involves watching the news. Imedi broadcasts Chronicle, a news show,at 8PM, then follows it up with Special Report, which sounds like kind of a 60 Minutes show, at 8:30. On this particular Saturday, with no advance notice, Imedi bumped Special Report up to 8:00, when most Georgians tuned in to get their news.

Except this was no ordinary episode. They opened with a disclaimer, that what was to follow would show what could happen if Georgians don’t join together against Russia’s plans. If viewers caught this, then they’d be treated to an hour of fear-mongering that would either leave them concerned for their nation’s future or ticked off over the network’s clear political bias. If they happened to miss the disclaimer, which was never repeated after the show’s initial fifteen seconds, then all they saw was this:

…and what was apparently an invasion of their country by the Russian army. Culling together footage of the 2008 war in South Ossetia along with other recycled news footage, the report detailed election fraud, the assassination of the President of the South Ossetia region, an angered Russian response, followed by the possible assassination of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. And none of it was true.

Imedi spared no effort in trying to make this look real. They included footage of Barack Obama giving a somber press conference in the White House rose garden, complete with a ‘translator’ providing the illusion that he was informing the American people of the violence in Georgia. Obama’s pretend speech then implored the Russians to cease their aggression.

Oh wait, it gets worse.

A message from President Saakashvili, written before his death that didn’t really happen, implores all Georgians to join the military, pronto. Uh oh, now Russian planes are bombing the hell out of Georgia. Over in Mtskheta, where human life is cheap and vowels are bought at a premium, Russian and Georgian soldiers are engaged in violent combat.

Also, apparently the report included a mention of Polish president Lech Kaczynski’s death in a plane crash, which actually happened a month later.

So how did the nation react? Well, those who caught the disclaimer either enjoyed the apocalyptic broadcast or else they didn’t. Those who missed the disclaimer, which includes everyone who tuned in just a little bit late, as well as the people they called to say, “Holy former Soviet shit! Turn on your damn TV right now!”, took this report a little harder.

First of all, people died. A woman whose son was in the Georgian Army, and presumably now fighting the Russians to the death, had a fatal heart attack. She was one of at least three Georgians whose heart either gave out or who had a stroke while watching this broadcast, convinced the street outside their home would soon be running red with blood. People flooded emergency services with phone calls, and raced to the nearest ATM to withdraw their life savings. A few Georgian Army units took up defensive positions in preparation for an attack.

This may be the most poorly-conceived hour of television programming in the history of the medium, and that’s saying something. This makes Temptation Island look Emmy-worthy.

Many Georgian journalists, as well as the opposition party, felt this guy was responsible:

In fact, President Saakashvili’s response was never an explicit denial – at least none that I found. He agreed that the show was ‘unpleasant’, but also defended its legitimacy as a valid postulation of what could happen if Georgians take their eye off the ball. Nika Gilauri, the Prime Minster, insisted that the government has no control over Imedi, and that the show was made without any official sign-off. From what I can tell, this claim is somewhat akin to Republicans pointing out that they don’t own Fox News. Sure, you aren’t owners. But Fox News is your bitch, and we all know it.

Then a taped phone call was released, featuring the president of Imedi, Giorgi Arveladze, chatting with his deputy about the show. Giorgi allegedly claimed he’d spoken to Saakashvili the day before the broadcast, and the President had actually advised against leading with a disclaimer, for fear it would lessen the effect. Giorgi also requested that his journalists avoid mentioning that the story was a fake.

This call was countered by another leaked call between Saakashvili and his Minister of Culture, in which the President says there should have been a caption below the entire program, indicating that it was a simulation. But both men agreed that the show really nailed the accuracy of a potential Russia-Georgia war. Both leaked phone calls were claimed by their participants as fakes. Sure.

The reaction around the world was universal disgust, from the European Union to NATO. Time magazine called it the number-one most shocking hoax of all time, above and beyond Balloon Boy, the Hitler Diaries, and Orson Welles’ 1938 War Of The Worlds radio broadcast.

The long-term effects of this scandal appear to be negligible. Georgia and Russia have not yet come to war, Imedi is still on the air, and Saakashvili still gets to wear the official Georgian state presidential monocle (if they don’t have one, they should make one). I suppose one could argue that the long-term effects for the people who died from the shock of seeing the show are fairly significant.

On the one hand, this is a filthy abuse of journalism and possibly political power. On the other, I kind of wish our political scandals were this exciting. 

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