Saw You in the Funny Papers: Secrets of Fake News Articles in TV Shows

BY J.T.O.

 

The fake newspapers used in movies and TV shows, with their frequently misspelled, World War III-size headlines on minor stories, wouldn’t make it past the copy desk at even the worst rag in America.

For the average viewer, such props are real enough to illustrate a point. And it used to be that no one could get more than a glimpse of a fake newspaper article’s actual text—the hardcore content that would make or break the suspension of disbelief.

In this era of crystal-clear freeze-frames on DVDs and computer video players, everything is different. Obsessive fans now catalogue the newsprint from their favorite shows, discovering that it is typically a gibberish mishmash of fake stories. I was able to spot the same fake article’s repeated use in various TV shows over the years, then track down its origins in a shadowy, jokey world of professional forgers.

Watching a 2003 episode of the detective show “Monk” on Netflix, I found an unusually long and clear close-up of a fake magazine article.1 Purporting to be “Bay Area Lawyers Rated Best & Worst,” it included several fake attorney names and a brief section of text about one of the episode’s characters. But, as easily read in a freeze-frame, the rest of the article was a repeating, 187-word fragment about a court case. Its first paragraph said:

“The idea that such a prominent figure, unjustly accused, would become a fugitive rather than fighting to clear her good name is simply ridiculous,” said attorney Greg Bilson. “This is election season and these people have shown that they are willing to sacrifice the good name of an upstanding citizen for their personal political gain.”

The rest of the fragment—featuring more blab from Bilson as well as from prosecution spokesperson “Abraham Spitz”—was so poorly written and punctuated that it clearly was not taken from a real news story.2

In double-checking its reality online, I found that the fictional article had a history in other TV shows.

In a 2002 episode of “The X-Files,” parts of the Bilson fragment appeared mixed in with other fragments in a fake newspaper clipping headlined “Prospector Slain In Mining Claim Dispute.”3 Despite supposedly dating to the early 1900s, the newspaper clipping included the Bilson fragment and its modern terminology, such as “news conference.” Another anachronistic text fragment filling out the clipping was about a man on Death Row for a “convenience store” murder.

A chunk of the Bilson fragment showed up again in a 2007 episode of “Heroes,” tucked into a fake newspaper article about a murder. Once again, it was just one of several discordant fragments. The others referred to a union dispute, immigrants seeking asylum, and a murderous sniper.4

It is unclear exactly why the Bilson fragment is so popular as to appear so frequently. But I have a pretty good idea where it came from.

It just so happens that a Gregg Bilson Jr.—sometimes credited as “Greg Bilson”—operates a prop company in California called Independent Studio Services, which was founded by his father. ISS’s services include creating fake newspapers and magazines.5

Bilson Jr. said in an email that he doesn’t know whether ISS created that particular “attorney Greg Bilson” article. But it wouldn’t surprise him.

“We use the names of employees and myself for many different articles to make up the space and diversity of a full page in newspapers and magazines,” he said.

ISS has provided props to “Heroes,” but it’s unclear what types of materials and which episodes. The company has supplied scores of TV and movie productions, including “24,” “The Office,” “The Dark Knight” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”6

Prop-makers’ propensity for in-jokes makes it possible to trace certain other connections. The fake newspaper article in “Heroes” that features the Bilson fragment is bylined to a Christina Haberkern. Haberkern is a real-life prop-maker who made that fake newspaper and has put her name on such artificial products as a brand of beer shown in an episode of “Desperate Housewives.”7 (She did not respond to my questions about the “Heroes” prop article.)

Haberkern’s prop credits include the TV show “Gray’s Anatomy.” Also working on that series was Tom Day, the longtime property master for “The X-Files”—including the episode featuring the Bilson fragment in the fake newspaper clipping.8 I was unable to locate Day for comment. But it seems likely that prop makers go from gig to gig with a file of fake article fragments that they use like clip art to conjure up newspapers and magazines.

Perhaps the deeper mystery is why prop makers aren’t more tidy and thorough in writing fake articles. After all, decent freeze-frame tech has been widespread for 15 years now. Yet in another episode of “Heroes,” I spotted a fake newspaper article that was padded out not with fictional gibberish, but rather with an actual L.A. Times piece—a possible copyright law violation.9

But motion pictures remain a species of stage magic; speed and misdirection still work their pleasant illusions on the majority who will never hit the pause button. And prop-makers are a species of forger (quite literally—ISS and Haberkern produce high-quality official documents and airplane tickets). Like their black-hat brethren, they rely not on total realism, but rather on something good enough to get you across the border—in this case, of your own imagination.

Attorney Greg Bilson and prop-maker Gregg Bilson Jr. share an illusive, elusive quality. It turns out that ISS has a branch office—a mini warehouse, really—in Cambridge, Mass., not far from AJAOR. I took a stroll last year past the 169 Rindge Ave. warehouse, itself a kind of buried fragment, hidden behind a row of houses. You’d have to know it was there, or get close enough to read a handwritten delivery notice on one house’s front door, which also refers to another mysterious company called Deep Background. I walked up a driveway and looked at the aging warehouse, its blank face hiding—what? Copies of the Greg Bilson article?

I looked close, and didn’t see a thing.

1 “Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect,” season 2, episode 7, airdate Aug. 31, 2003. All TV show episodes described in this column were viewed via Netflix’s online streaming service. The property master on this episode was Al Eisenmann, who did not respond to questions about the fake article.

            2 The remainder of the fragment reads:

Prosecutors have said little about the timing of the arrest, referring all questions to the Press Secretary for the Attorney General’s office. Press Secretary Abraham Spitz issued a brief statement saying that “the full list of charges is still being prepared and will be available after tomorrow’s hearing at 3:00 PM.”

 

A news conference has been scheduled for immediately following the hearing leading Bilson to further blast the prosecution for their “emphasis on showmanship over truth” and vows to hold his own news conference on the steps of the courthouse at the same time, hoping to draw some of the attention away from “the typical political three ring circus court of the selfish television media.”

 

The wheels of justice can move pretty slowly sometimes causing all kinds of unnecessary delays to the….

 

            3 “Hellbound,” season 9, episode 8, airdate Jan. 27, 2002. The fake article was first noted by the web site “X-Files: For the Detail-Obsessed X-Phile” at www.x-phile.com/904hellbound.html. This is the earliest known use of the Bilson fragment, and the portion used is smaller than “Monk” later used. That suggests that the Bilson article was originally created for some earlier show or movie.

            4 “Lizards,” season 2, episode 2, airdate Oct. 1, 2007. The fake article was first noted by “kucharsk” in an Oct. 3, 2007 post on the “AV Science Forum” web site at www.avsforum.com/avs.vb/showthread.php?t=912339&page=15. It appears that the other fragments in the text are also fake.

            5 See www.issprops.com. I discovered Gregg Bilson Jr. through the “Internet Movie Database” web site at www.imdb.com.

            6 ISS web site, op. cit.

            7 See Christinahaberkern.carbonmade.com.

            8 “Internet Movie Database,” op. cit.

            9 “Don’t Look Back,” season 1, episode 2, airdate Oct. 2, 2006. The copied article is a July 29, 2005 piece by John Johnson Jr. and Ralph Vartabedian about the space shuttle. The byline on the fake article is “Gerald Ulberg,” who may also be a prop-maker. The same name appears on a list of court witnesses in season 1, episode 12 of the 2006 TV series “Day Break,” as first noted by TV.com at www.tv.com/day-break/show/58017/trivia.html. I was unable to locate any real-life Gerald Ulberg in the industry.

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