Moran Cerf describes his “Liberty Valance” moment on KCRW’s UnFictional

I’ve already posted this to my Facebook profile, but the story put a hook into me, and deserves a more thorough reaction, comment & perhaps clarification.

This story struck a particular chord with me, because in my professional career, I’ve seen first-hand how a media meltdown can bend reality, even for the people who had first-hand knowledge of what really happened. If you haven’t already heard it, please click on the link above and listen to what happened to Moran when he blundered into the international media spotlight.

Basically, Moran was doing research into how the brain functions, and two words in the press release they had prepared sounded to an editor at the BBC as though they were announcing that they were able to record dreams.

The story took off, and Moran struggled for weeks with the misperceptions that hardened into “facts” in the minds of the international media. I can’t do justice to what happened next, only groan in familiar pain as he describes how the story took on a life of its own and drowned out the original message they were trying to convey (which is in the video below).

Thought projection by neurons in the human brain

This really resonated for me because of something that happened more than 20 years ago, back when I was working as a paparazzi (yes, I was one of the unholy legions that race through the streets of Hollywood like the minions of The Humoungous in Road Warrior. It was fun for a while, and I wrote a book about it). The situation was that Madonna and Sean Penn were getting divorced. The bureau chief was struggling to find some new way to spin the story; it was widely suspected that Penn, who was, and is, notorious for his volatile temper, had freaked out over some of Madonna’s flirtatious behavior. But to say that Penn had smacked her around would be to accuse him of a felony in print — a real no-no in the journalism game, and one that can wind you in court for years, defending serious libel litigation.

What to do, what to do …

Well, the editor fabricated the story that Penn had pitched a fit over Christmas and tied Madonna to a chair. He used the phrase “trussed up like a turkey.”


The story was the right combination of lurid & salacious (leading to big newsstand sales!) while still remaining on this side of actionable and defamatory. It ran to great acclaim and got picked up by all manner of other news outlets, repeated again & again as the moment that Madonna and Sean split up. And the phrase “trussed up like a turkey” was used by other media outlets, and then spread to all the TV tabloid shows – A Current Affair, Hard Copy, etc. etc.

Years later, I was going through the morgue (no, not the place where they store dead bodies, although I was actually in such places for stories at other times during my career — the “morgue” is what we used to call the battered filing cabinets full of clippings from old newspaper and magazine stories that we used for research). I was trying to find some background fact on Madonna, and I started to notice a pattern.

Over the years, every time she did an interview in the early 90s, Madonna was asked about her relationship with Sean Penn (and in turn, he was asked about her). They would refer to the story about their Christmas fight, and they would deny it. At one point, Sean said something like “they said I dressed up like a turkey” (apparently, someone had mispronounced or misunderstood the verb “trussed”) and laughed.

And then something very strange started happening.

Madonna started saying that the reason she split up with Sean Penn was that they had had a fight over Christmas. And that he had tied her to a chair.

She even used the phrase “trussed up like a turkey.”

The story had been repeated so many times over the years, that even the people to whom it was supposed to have happened, who knew it to be untrue, had come around to believe that it had actually happened to them. Madonna had heard so many people talking about how she had been tied up, that she actually believed that it had happened to her. Her perceptions of reality had become unmoored … although many might say that this is a rather common condition in Hollywood.

This is the effect of the mass media on us these days. It is like an enormous, all-encompassing hypnotist, whispering in our ears wherever we go, flashing subliminal (or liminal) messages at us all the time.

Repetition has an effect on human consciousness. On perception. On memory. Why else do those damn radio ads for cheap car insurance chant their “Dial 1-800-blahblahblah” numbers at us over and over again? Why else do we train little kids how to say their alphabet and do their times tables with flash cards?

Moran Cerf’s work centers around the micro scale — how on a personal level, we don’t really know what we think we know. My life has been spent examining that effect on a more macro scale — where, as a society, it doesn’t matter what really happened, only what people think (and say) happened.

Reality is, indeed, what we make of it. Which is both exciting, and frightening.

Now watch this video of Moran talking about colonoscopies.

The Illusion of Free Will – Mindshare LA