A TV reporter in Montgomery, Alabama, sprung into action recently after reading that Alabama was widely perceived as misguided, intolerant and poorly educated, according to a global public relations firm that cited focus groups and surveys.
The firm, the story said, strongly encouraged U.S. officials to downplay its connections with the state and to avoid being seen in any of its cities.
Sensing something was amiss, the TV reporter called the firm and was informed that the article was fictitious, a fact that she promptly and breathlessly reported to her viewers.
The problem is the article appeared in the Onion, a satirical newspaper of some renown. All of the stories that appear in the Onion are fictitious and have been since it was founded some 25 years ago by a bunch of college kids in Wisconsin.
Fast forward a week. A blogger whose work appears in the Washington Post, citing an Internet report, disclosed that Sarah Palin had signed on as a contributor to the Arab-owned Al Jazeera American News network.
"As you all know, I'm not a big fan of newspapers, journalists, news anchors and the liberal media in general," Palin allegedly told the Daily Currant. "But I met with the folks at Al-Jazeera and they told me they reach millions of devoutly religious people who don't watch CBS or CNN. That tells me they don't have a liberal bias."
Alas, the Daily Currant piece cited by the blogger was satirical. As is everything they publish.
Hello, Washington Post? Get me rewrite.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. It seems satire being presented as actual news has become a full-blown phenomenon, thanks in no small part to the advent of bloggers, tweeters and the like.
Many apparently lack the critical thinking skills to assess what they are reading. Others simply don't understand an art form that was practiced by Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain.
Even more disturbing is that the higher the story ranks on the outrage scale, the more people are willing to believe it. That may be because so many spend their lives in a state of perpetual angst about what they see as the decline and fall of civilization that nothing seems too far fetched for them to believe.
Why else would people believe stuff like this:
The Daily Currant posted an interview that former Congressman Todd Akin reportedly in which he said that "female breast milk - when fed directly to an adult homosexual male daily for at least four weeks - has a 94% chance of permanently curing homosexual perversions."
Since Akin had once actually said that female victims of "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant, the breast milk story was presumed to be true and spread across the Internet like wildfire.
An Onion article on Harry Potter inciting children to practice witchcraft was the subject of a widely forwarded email to the moms of the world. In November 2010, the Fox Nation website, a part of the Fox News network, presented as fact an Onion article about President Barack Obama writing a rambling 75,000 word e-mail complaining about America.
In February 2012, Congressman John Fleming, R-Louisiana, posted a link to an Onion article on his Facebook page about an $8 billion "Abortionplex" opened by Planned Parenthood.
China's People's Daily quoted as true a satirical article calling Kim Jong-un of North Korea the "sexiest man alive."
The Daily Currant in November published a satirical article claiming that former president George W. Bush had accidentally voted for Barack Obama because he couldn't figure out how to properly use his voting machine. It was reported as fact by news outlets in Texas.
And several overseas papers reported as fact a satirical piece that claimed Congress was threatening to leave Washington, D.C., unless the government built a new Capitol with a retractable dome.
Funny stuff. But it raises a serious issue: Are the lines between satire and legitimate journalism becoming increasingly blurred? Are people making decisions based on whoopie cushion reportage? Do we believe anything that pops us on our computers or TV screens?
The answer appears to be "yes."
When Time magazine recently asked readers to identify "the most trusted newsperson in America," John Stewart of Comedy Central's satirical "Daily Show" was the runaway winner.
That matched an earlier survey by the Pew Center in which Stewart tied Brian Williams, Tom Browkaw, Dan Rather and Anderson Cooper as the journalist respondents most admire.
Stewart is a remarkable wit. And, yes, his comedic commentary is often spot on.
But if his shtick is becoming the preferred source of information to a new generation of Americans, the joke is on us.