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How a cute animal video deceived everybody

A video that went temporarily viral months ago has re-entered the conversation, as the comedian and creator of a Comedy Central show has revealed how it was staged

By Open Source Community on Tue, 02/26/13 - 2:50pm.

In September, an astounding video of an amazingly altruistic pig saving a goat that appeared to be trapped in a small pond went viral quickly, spreading from an otherwise unused YouTube account to Time magazine, NBC's "Today" show, and ABC's "Good Morning America." It was good while it lasted, but with the daily inundation of cute animal photos, videos, and gifs, it's not surprising that it was largely forgotten in the time since. Until today.

The New York Times reports that the video, which has since racked up more than 7 million YouTube views - and will probably see a few million more in the wake of the Times' report - was staged. Even more notably, it wasn't staged by an anonymous YouTube user, like the one behind the infamous "Golden Eagle Snatches Kid" video, which saw 42 million views before it was debunked hours later.

The more adorable, and plausible, story of the goat and the pig was staged by Nathan Felder, the 29-year-old comedian and star of the upcoming Comedy Central show "Nathan For You," in which Felder "helps small businesses execute outrageous marketing stunts devised by him and his producers," the Times says.

The video involved "animal trainers, scuba divers and humane officers, and required the fabrication of a plastic track to guide the pig to the goat (which was never in jeopardy)," the Times says.

The story of the video's ascent is remarkable enough. Felder says that after getting his crew to sign nondisclosure agreements, he created the YouTube account and posted the video, and did nothing beyond that to promote it, according to the report. 

By the following morning Mr. Fielder, who said he did not make any additional efforts to promote the video online or through social networks, found it posted on sites like Gawker and Reddit. He also started receiving requests through his YouTube account from television programs that wanted to show his video. In short messages to producers of “Good Morning America” and Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show, “Anderson Live” — neither of whom asked how the video was made — Mr. Fielder gave them permission to broadcast it but offered no other details about it.

Even more remarkably, NBC showed the video on its Nightly News program even though Felder says he ignored the network's "fairly persistent" requests, the Times says.

However, what is even more interesting is how little the reporters behind these shows bothered to verify the video's legitimacy. To NBC's credit, Nightly News anchor Brian Williams acknowledged that he had "no way of knowing if it's real." However, as the Times points out, few others bothered to even look into it:

When the video was played on “Good Morning America,” Elizabeth Vargas tried to ask her fellow presenters how the pig had freed the goat, but she was met with laughter. “Every day with Elizabeth, it’s like, ‘How did this happen?’ ” replied the weather anchor Sam Champion.

While the Times report quotes journalism experts who make some dramatic claims of "malpractice," this isn't really the end of the world.

But it is an interesting play on the internet's impact on the consumption of content. Does it even matter for media outlets to look into the veracity of a story if it will give a competitor time to break the story first? Gawker and Time magazine, for example, have already reaped the web traffic from reposting the video on their sites. It almost seems to make more sense to apologize after the fact. You know, "don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness," and all that business. An apology post - or at least one explaining how they were duped - is just another opportunity for more web traffic.

Whether the lesson learned in this case, which refreshingly came in the form of a completely harmless video of farm animals, actually has an impact on reporting practices remains to be seen. But it's unlikely.

Because tomorrow we'll all be watching a video of an otter playing volleyball with a raccoon, and we'll forget about it anyway.