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Lakelandist: Fake news goes funny as site satirizes Polk County

Lakelandist: Fake news goes funny as site satirizes Polk County
05 Oct
3:53

The Lakelandist has gained attention on social media the past few days, prompting considerable discussion and speculation about who might be behind the phony reporting.

LAKELAND — Here at Polk County’s newspaper of record, we must acknowledge having missed some momentous news events of late.

When a restaurant in downtown Lakeland announced plans to serve locally sourced swan meat, we failed to report it.

It also eluded our notice when Publix Super Markets unveiled a line of funeral homes with the motto “Where dying is a pleasure.”

And we were caught unaware when the Polk Museum of Art reinvented itself as a laser tag arena.

If you didn’t hear about such developments, that’s because those and similarly outlandish stories have been published on TheLakelandist.com, a satirical website that recently emerged.

The site, seemingly modeled after The Onion, a hugely popular satire source, peddles in boldly fake news, all of it based on actual people and entities in Polk County.

The Lakelandist has gained attention on social media the past few days, prompting considerable discussion and speculation about who might be behind the phony reporting.

The site contained 32 ersatz entries as of Wednesday afternoon, with the first dated July 27. A companion Twitter account (@lakelandist) opened Monday and had 394 followers as of Wednesday.

Until Tuesday, posts on the site consisted only of headlines and accompanying photos. That changed Wednesday, as brief stories appeared under some existing headlines, and a few new items popped up, complete with both headlines and articles.

The Lakelandist’s masthead features a stylized image of a swan — Lakeland’s mascot — against a photo of Lake Mirror. The label “A Satire” was added in small print above the name, apparently Tuesday night.

Some of The Lakelandist’s targets are obvious. One headline, “Grady Judd Defends Incarceration of Woman Standing Between Him, Camera,” reprises an old joke about the Polk County sheriff, who is known for enthusiastically courting media attention.

Another headline, “Residents Unsure if New Downtown Junk Pile is Art, Trash,” japes at Albert Paley’s colorful sculpture, “Tribute to the Spirit of Volunteerism,” an object of derision for many locals.

Other items venture into more absurdist territory, such as “Homeless Complete Ritual, Select New God-Emperor of Munn Park.”

The site’s operator(s) proved nimble by posting a story Wednesday morning headlined “To Protest Removal of Name from Admin Building, Neil Combee Threatens Removal of Clothes.” That reflected a story reported Tuesday that Polk County Commissioners are considering scrubbing the county administration building of the former commissioner’s name.

The site has already launched two arrows toward Lakeland-based Publix, perhaps the county’s most revered institution. In addition to the funeral home story, another headline reads, “Ghost of George Jenkins Spotted Measuring Associate Beard Lengths at Lake Miriam Publix.”

That item followed genuine news reports that Publix is changing longstanding policy by allowing employees at some stores to have beards. A Publix spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

A few headlines have included crude language. For example: “Polk Museum of Art Decides ‘F— It, We’re a Laser Tag Place Now.’ ” 

The operator(s) of The Lakelandist have spoofed the notion, expressed by city officials and boosters, that Lakeland is a diverse and vibrant place.

“Seeking Diversity, Lakeland Marketing Company Hires Brunette,” reads one headline. Another declares, ” ‘Lakeland is Just as Interesting as Orlando or Tampa,’ Says Grandmother.”

Does The Lakelandist equate to “Lakeland dissed”? Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz expressed concern that the site disparages the efforts of those trying to make Lakeland a better place.

“I think it’s designed to be cynically humorous,” Mutz said. “I would probably respond to that the way I would to most satirical sites. I would encourage people who are making comments to be sure they’re also involved in the process of the things they are making fun of. … It’s easy to take pot shots at things that seem simple and have an almost humorous answer, but when they minimize the value of other people who are committed at a very deep level — it’s a shame you get your humor at others’ expense.”

An item posted Wednesday gigs Grace City Church, which Mutz attends. The headline proclaims, “Grace City Church Raises Tithe, Opening Modeling School.”

That entry showed awareness that the church draws a young and fashionable congregation. Mutz took no offense.

“Nah, that doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It’s just kind of what you’d expect. In a way, it’s a compliment to Grace City that millennials look cool.”

Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado said the city’s communication staff alerted him to the site Tuesday.

“Obviously, it’s a parody site, and based upon the fact it’s truly a parody, I think it was very imaginative,” Delgado said. “Personally, I might not adhere to or fall in line with some of the things out there, but this is truly imaginative.”

Delgado said he thinks Lakeland residents should be willing to laugh at themselves.

“Whoever is managing The Lakelandist, I hope they never get to the point they become biting,” he said. “At least from what I’ve seen, I don’t think that’s the plan.”

The site has also directed its raillery toward the cities of Auburndale, Bartow and Mulberry.

Claire Orologas, executive director and chief curator at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, didn’t mind the post saying the institution has converted to a laser tag site.

“We hope people will come, but they’ll have to check their laser guns at the door,” Orologas said. “I didn’t see all of them (posts), so I can’t comment on every single one, but the ones I saw were very cute and funny, and it’s just good to laugh at ourselves a little bit.”

An item seen on the site Tuesday described a Harrison School for the Arts graduate auditioning for a part in a regional commercial for Chuck E. Cheese’s. (The post was gone Wednesday.)

Several Harrison graduates have appeared on Broadway, and one — Karen Olivo — has won a Tony Award. Yet Harrison Principal Daryl Ward laughed off the lampooning.

Ward proclaimed himself a devotee of satire, mentioning Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” in which the author recommended that Ireland’s poor sell their children to the wealthy as food. He said he also appreciates The Onion.

Ward entertained the idea that The Lakelandist’s creator could be a Harrison graduate.

“I do think it’s got to be somebody — without sounding elitist — who can think and operate at that level, and that’s not a lot of people,” Ward said. “Obviously, you’ve got a person who has a really sharp, witty sense of humor but beyond that is also in tune with a lot of the social dynamics within the Polk County area. … So it’s someone, I think, with a keen sense of knowledge of the relationships between what’s going on in the community and what’s perhaps problematic with the community, and they’re using humor to point those things out.”

Ward wondered how long The Lakelandist will sustain itself before the operator(s) run out of material or get bored. If the creator is unmasked, that could also break the spell.

Delgado said he hopes that doesn’t happen.

“Personally, I think it’s good that we don’t know,” he said. “I think that adds a little to it from the standpoint of mystery and adds to the parody. I think once we know — and if we ever get the chance to know — I think it takes away from it.”

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13. 

Source: http://www.theledger.com/news/20181003/lakelandist-fake-news-goes-funny-as-site-satirizes-polk-county

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