WANTED: For Media Hoaxing  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1992

WANTED: For Media Hoaxing   

Caution: These Guys Are Pros at Conning the Press. Read & Learn How Not to Get Burned.

By Patrick Boyle
Patrick Boyle is a reporter for the WashingtonTimes.      

Related reading:
   » I Was Willing; He Was Abel

When reporters arrived at New York's Omni Park Central – alerted by tips that a woman was tossing cash from a hotel window – they found a fourth-floor suite decked with expensive flowers, American flags, congratulatory telegrams, caviar and champagne.

They also found a party and a giddy lottery winner flashing a photocopy of her $35 million ticket – the biggest single-winner jackpot in New York history.

She said she was a 30-year-old makeup artist. She said she was single. She said the ticket was in the hotel safe. She said she picked the numbers from a dream in which Donald Trump and Malcolm Forbes buzzed past her on a flying carpet and uttered the magic digits.

"You're kidding me," one TV reporter said on the air.

"No," she replied.

Actually, she was. The woman was an actress named Lee Chirillo, and she was performing in yet another media hoax organized by prankster Alan Abel. Staged on a quiet Sunday evening in January 1990, the event was one of Abel's proudest moments: Chirillo's tale kicked off several 11 p.m. broadcasts and the headline, "$35M And She's Single" consumed Page One of the New York Post. Only the New York Daily News smelled something foul, announcing in its final edition, "It's A Hoax."

"I was shocked and almost sick to my stomach," said Post M.E. Lou Colasuonno the next day.

You're not alone, Lou. Hoaxers succeed at fooling the media more than most people in the industry would care to admit: Peter Jennings declares on ABC's "World News Tonight" that Lenin's body is up for sale, and USA Today follows with a story; National Public Radio airs a five-minute interview with Abel, who claims he's broke and wants to sell a kidney or lung for $25,000; the Washington Post prints the phoned-in box score of a fictitious basketball game; the "CBS Evening News" airs an interview with a hoaxer who insists he believes Elvis is alive (and has home movies to prove it) but should still get his "memorial" postage stamp; CNN comes within seconds of reporting that an ill George Bush had died in Tokyo after a tip from a caller claiming to be the president's doctor; the New York Times publishes Abel's obituary at least 12 years too soon; the Seattle Times prints a wedding photo of a couple that is actually two male disc jockeys, one in drag; and some 175 papers, from Oregon's Bend Bulletin to the Pittsburgh Press, run hoaxer Joey Skaggs' tale of a cult where people eat cockroach hormones to fight acne and menstrual cramps.

They're all lies, and worse, they're a growing occupational hazard for harried journalists.

While hoaxers have scammed the media for centuries, the vocation appears to be gaining popularity. "I don't know why, but I've seen more of these things – at least a dozen – in the past few years," says Fred Fedler, a journalism professor at the University of Central Florida and author of "Media Hoaxes."

Fedler, who spent 10 years researching his 1989 book, says he once believed media hoaxers were just poking innocent fun at journalists who took themselves too seriously. By the time he finished his book, he says he'd realized the serious damage such pranks could cause.

"They hurt media credibility tremendously," he says. "How long has it been since Janet Cooke fabricated the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict for the Washington Post? Twelve years? Whenever I'm on radio talk shows, that's the first thing listeners bring up. They think it's common; no one remembers that it was journalists who uncovered the hoax or that Cooke was fired."

And hoaxes don't need to be elaborate to succeed, he says. "After every war, people who weren't even overseas claim to have been heroes. After the Persian Gulf War, there were two cases in Florida alone where so-called heroes turned out to be liars."

"Hoaxing is just the easiest thing in the world to do," agrees Skaggs*, who makes his living as a painter and sculptor. "But hoaxing isn't the issue. The issue is disinformation. How do hoaxes happen?"

And how can journalists avoid being duped?

Ironically, journalists invented the art. As early as the 1720s, a teen-age Benjamin Franklin was mimicking the British press by spinning phony tales for his brother's Boston Courant. Throughout the 1800s, "most of the hoaxes published in newspapers were things that journalists made up just for fun or to get an exclusive," Fedler says. One of the most popular was a story written in 1835 by a reporter who claimed scientists had spotted winged people on the moon through a new type of telescope.

These days reporters such as Cooke who try to fool readers risk their jobs and reputations. But that leaves plenty of room for pros such as Abel and Skaggs, who spend thousands of dollars to pull some hoaxes and who have years of experience.

Abel's first prank, for instance, was in 1959. As a comedy writer looking for publicity, he created the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA) to argue that animals should wear clothes. An editor at the Saturday Evening Post promptly rejected an article explaining SINA's cause, but his response suggested he had taken the prank seriously. Inspired, Abel sent fellow comedian Buck Henry to portray SINA's leader on NBC's "Today" and "Tonight" shows and the "CBS Evening News."

Skaggs' first large-scale prank also involved animals – testimony to the media's love of cuddly creatures. He placed a classified ad in the Village Voice in 1976 announcing a "cathouse for dogs." Reporters ran to the phones; Skaggs found 30 friends to bring dogs to a friend's loft and talk about their horny pets. The pick of the coverage was a three-minute segment aired on WABC-TV's evening news.

While Abel claims the motive for his hoaxes is laughs – "We need more humor in this world," the comedian and musician says – he once explained that he likes to "jump in and create some havoc, give some levity to the news. And the media are prime targets – they are so ruthless, they deserve to be pricked once in a while. Their pomposity and insensitivity are overwhelming... The media lies and lies and lies..." In a later interview, he added, "Most reporters feel they are above the human breed..."

For his part, Skaggs says his pranks are about "propaganda [and] disinformation... The media is my canvas, my medium to make social-political commentary."

"That's just his justification for conniving to get his name in the paper and look clever," responds John Corr, a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Does he do anything else in his life?"

Corr has an informed opinion on hoaxes. He's been burned twice.

The first time he was a 21-year-old reporter at the Philadelphia Bulletin. It was 1958, the Cold War was heating up and the city desk received word that a Soviet exchange student would be arriving that evening to enroll at Penn State University the next day. Corr was sent to the airport. He found a cheering crowd waiting on the tarmac for the woman, who slipped into a limousine without speaking to him. Airport officials were convinced it was real. Corr's Bulletin editors told him to write it up.

It was a fraternity prank.

Twenty-five years later, it happened again. Corr, now at the Inquirer, got a press release about the Fat Squad, a group of thugs paid by overweight clients to restrain them from eating. Corr called New York to interview the squad's organizer, Joe Bones, and the Inquirer sent a photographer to shoot Bones and his "commandos."

Corr's piece appeared in the Inquirer and immediately zipped around the country on the wires. The Chicago Tribune printed Corr's story; other dailies wrote their own after getting the release. Those stories were then picked up by local TV news and CNN, culminating with a Fat Squad appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Shortly after, Joe Bones revealed he was Joey Skaggs. "I wanted to break the sucker's arm," Corr says.

Hoaxers often rely on fake press releases and the casual assumption that many reporters make every minute of every working day: that the voice on the other end of the line belongs to who you think it does. Even in person, reporters rarely ask for proof of identity and assume that even sources who lie aren't lying about everything .

"Journalists are like everyone else," Fedler says. "They think most people are truthful."

Even when reporters verify stories firsthand, they can step into a sideshow organized for their benefit. Take Abel's longest-running scam, Omar's School for Beggars. Since 1975 Abel, a.k.a. Omar Rockford, has organized courses in Manhattan teaching people how to panhandle. It began with a classified ad; the school was also listed for years in the Manhattan phone directory. When a reporter phones, Abel begs off publicity to pique the mark's interest. He then rents a studio and calls a dozen friends to play students. Once the reporter arrives, "Omar" instructs the class to wrap their hands in bandages and cover the bandages with ketchup so people will believe they're injured. Then the students practice on the street, asking strangers for money while the reporter observes.

"Like most people who get sucked into this thing, I thought this was a novel story," says Phil Reisman, an editor with Gannett Suburban Newspapers in New York. He was an editorial assistant with the short-lived New York Trib in 1977, "trying to get a byline," when he fell for Abel's yarn.

A good yarn it is, which is why reporters from Gannett Suburban have been burned twice by Omar – in 1977 and again in 1987, Reisman says. (Gannett Suburban now has a warning about Abel in its stylebook.) That same year Omar was featured in stories by the Miami Herald, New York magazine and the BBC; the year before, Omar scored at Newsday and CNN.

"It didn't traumatize me like it does some people," Reisman says. "I thought it was funny, actually, because I was new and I was learning. Alan's a fascinating guy."

Abel's and Skaggs' fibs are also fascinating, a key to their success. "These people create stories that are so unusual that reporters are almost anxious to cover them," Fedler says.

"I give the media what it wants," Skaggs explains. "Something sensational, sexual, ridiculous, fluffy. And they buy it."

Not always. Some pranks are just too ridiculous, such as the Ku Klux Klan Symphony Orchestra that Abel tried to peddle last summer. Using the name Charles Calhoun, he said in a release that he was creating the orchestra to change the image of the KKK by playing music for "a kinder, gentler quality of life." The musicians would come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds but wear white hoods.

That was too silly for Arizona Republic reporter Julia Lobaco. After speaking to Abel on the phone, she says, "I went to my editor and said, 'This must be some kind of joke.' " The salaries and medical benefits (Blue Cross) that Abel said his orchestra members would receive were exorbitant, and he wouldn't reveal his financial backers. But he did say ex-KKK leader David Duke was behind the endeavor. When Duke denied it to Lobaco, Abel was indifferent. "Well, what would you expect him to say?" he shrugged.

Lobaco's suspicions were confirmed soon after when Abel offered her an envelope filled with clippings about his hoaxes. He told her he carried the envelope to every interview, ready to reveal himself to reporters who aggressively tested his tale.

Lobaco's advice: "Listen. If you really listen, the stories get outrageous... They want to see how far they can push it."

Indeed, Abel and Skaggs say each prank is laced with hints of a put-on. "Your radar should go up," Abel says. "I can't resist throwing in some comedy lines." He says that when he staged an Idi Amin wedding in 1979, one of the security guards wore a boutonniere that squirted water. When Skaggs unveiled his cure-all roach hormone in 1981, he borrowed from Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," in which protagonist Gregor Samsa becomes a huge cockroach. Skaggs named his cult Metamorphosis and its leader Dr. Josef Gregor.

Abel and Skaggs say they won't do anything criminal or dangerous, but everything else is fair game. Abel got the New York Times to print (and later retract) his obituary in 1980 when he had someone announce that he had died in a ski accident in Utah. Skaggs has been known to appear on talk shows to discuss his hoaxes, but at least twice he sent an imposter – to "Entertainment Tonight" in 1988 and last year to a game show called, ironically, "To Tell The Truth." Only when "Geraldo" did a show on "the world's greatest hoaxes" did the real Skaggs show up – but he brought a friend who posed as an AP reporter he had duped.

What can journalists learn from hoaxers?

"I learned to follow my instinct," says Ingrid Devita, the reporter who exposed Abel's lottery hoax for the New York Daily News. "If you smell a rat, it probably is one."

She smelled a monster rodent in Lee Chirillo's hotel suite. "It was hard to get a straight answer out of her," says Devita, now a field producer for "Inside Edition." "I interviewed a bunch of people who said they were her friends, but none of them could tell me where they met her."

Devita also was suspicious of a "slumber room" sign on a bedroom door. After the other reporters had left, Devita opened the door.

"I was mortified," she says. There were Abel and his friends chortling over the 11 o'clock news, which was broadcasting their scam as reality. Devita recognized the prankster from a seminar she had once attended where he explained how he pulled hoaxes; she returned to the hotel with a photographer and confronted Abel, who reluctantly confessed. The Daily News had run a wire story about the lottery winner in early editions but revealed the hoax in its final.

The lottery hoax was unusual because it was deadline news. Reisman points out that most of the hoaxes are features that could be held to allow more checking. That, however, runs against competitive instincts. Abel "capitalizes on the tendency in all of us to be there first," Reisman says.

Skaggs says he hopes his pranks remind reporters that they're being "hoaxed" every day by P.R. campaigns, businesses and the government. To

Skaggs there is little difference between Josef Gregor pitching his roach hormore miracle cure and President Bush insisting race had nothing to do with his nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Reporters should be more critical, he says.

Those who have been hoaxed or nearly hoaxed say they are now more suspicious. Lobaco even called back the writer of this article to see if he really worked at a newspaper.

News organizations, however, often do little more after being tricked than issue a cautionary memo. The problem, Reisman says, is that newsroom turnover brings in fresh faces who haven't been warned about hoaxers such as Abel. "His picture ought to be on wanted posters in newsrooms everywhere," Reisman says.

"Contrary to published reports," those posters might read, "this man is not dead." l

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