April Media Fools
By Rory O'Connor
March 30, '05
YORK, March 30, 2005 -- Why leave fake news and media scams to the
White House, CBS News and the New York Times? Instead I say -- with
apologies to Scoop Nisker -- "If you don't like the news, make up some
of your own!" After all, it's surprisingly easy -- as George Bush, Dan
Rather, Jayson Blair and innumerable other politicos and journalists
have already demonstrated.
As a result, activists of every stripe
are increasingly scoring political points with media pranks. From
Michael Moore's self-aggrandizing stunts to the more focused corporate
spoofs of Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno to the parodistic
"non-traditional media transformations" of the Newsbreakers, more and
more merry media pranksters are now fighting fake news fires with fire
of their own.
case in point: the brilliant trick the Yes Men played last December
upon the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster in India.
After they set up a bogus website, purporting to represent Dow Chemical
(Dow took over Union Carbide, the plant's owners at the time of the
catastrophe that killed 20,000), the BBC logged on to request an
interview. Bichlbaum and Bonanno accepted the misguided invitation and,
posing as Dow representatives, went on air to announce that the company
accepted full responsibility for the disaster and would pay billions of
dollars in compensation to the victims. Naturally, their apology
quickly made worldwide headlines -- thus forcing Dow to retract the
phony "apology" and the Yes Men's "offer" of bogus billions.
anarchic daddy of all media hoaxers, however, is undeniably Joey
Skaggs, who first turned the public prank into a high art form. As his
web site proudly notes, Skaggs "has been called everything from the
World's Greatest Hoaxer to a royal pain in the ass." In the course of
decades of manipulating mainstream media makers -- mainly by using
their own hypocrisy, laziness, and stupidity against them -- Skaggs has
been "threatened, assaulted, summonsed, subpoenaed, arrested, deposed,
dismissed, trivialized, maligned, even thanked and praised." Along the
way, he's carved a unique niche as a "notorious socio-political
satirist, media activist, culture jammer, hoaxer and dedicated
proponent of independent thinking and media literacy."
create a false reality, I always try to create a plausible structure to
help convince people," Skaggs once explained in an interview with
McSweeney's. "Most important to any fake story is a plausible,
realistic edge with a satirical twist that is topical. I want people to
be amused or amazed but fooled. I want them to say, "Unbelievable!" but
believe it. Satire and believability are irresistible to the news
media. Sensationalism gets them every time."
Skaggs calls his
pranks "plausible but non-existent realities," and says he was inspired
"by the need to be cunning enough to fool journalists, while leaving
clues and challenging them to catch me. "
Sometimes it's simply a
matter of being topical and outrageous. "Other times you can use a
calendar to predict the kinds of stories the media is looking for,"
explains Skaggs. "Celebrations of anniversaries of disasters, such as
nuclear power plant meltdowns or political assassinations, provide
opportunities, as do holidays. And then there are the ubiquitous animal
or pet stories. There's one every day.
"If I'm successful in
fooling a wire service, I don't really have to do anything else to
promote the story," he adds. "Because the media will feed off of
itself. They all assume the original author did his or her homework!"
who works for and often by himself, rarely profits from his stunts
(although his "fish condos"-- designer apartments for guppies --
started as a joke and ended up selling as gifts for yuppies). He's not
looking for dollars -- just change. "Revelation is the most important
aspect of the process," as he once told US News and World Report.
"That's the point where consciousness can change."
A product of
the anti-Establishment, Sixties-protest counter-culture, Skaggs stages
his Yippie-like stunts in that spirit. He considers himself a
performance artist, in the mode of the Surrealists and Dadaists. As
Mark Borkowski noted in a recent article in The Independent, Skaggs'
first effort was nearly forty years ago, in 1966, "when he carried a
10ft crucifix on an Easter parade in New York to rail against the
hypocrisy of the Church and man's inhumanity to man. He later strung a
50ft bra across the steps of the US Treasury on St. Valentine's Day to
highlight the American male's obsession with female breasts. His
premise was simple: he set out to ridicule the media façade, and the
fallibility of the public's blind acceptance of the media, so he used
the media as his medium."
A decade later, Skaggs placed a
newspaper ad announcing the opening of a brothel for dogs ("A cat house
for dogs featuring a savory selection of hot bitches"), complete with a
media "photo-opportunity." One company received an Emmy nomination for
its coverage of the event.
Another Skaggs piece involved the
opening of a "Celebrity Sperm Bank", where Bob Dylan and The Beatles
had allegedly left deposits. Then there was the made-up laboratory
where Dr. Josef Gregor (aka Skaggs) bred a strain of cockroaches that
produced hormones to cure illness and protect humans from radiation. In
the competitive frenzy to report the new miracle drug, no one in the
MSM noticed that the phony doctor's name evoked the main character in
Kafka's The Metamorphosis, who turned from a human into a giant insect.
And it's hard to forget the time Skaggs posed as the president of a
Korean group called Kea So Joo and sent letters to shelters asking that
unwanted dogs be sent to him to be used as food.
as Borkowski notes, "there would have been no Yes Men, no Michael
Moore, because Skaggs -- as little known as he is -- is the originator.
Unlike Moore, he is not driven by ego, because he is an artist first
and an activist second. Because he shies away from publicity for
himself, he remains unknown to the world at large, but his name should
be written in lights as an example to us all."
"The issues of my
performances vary, but most of the questions buried in the work remain
the same," says Skaggs. "What do we believe? Why do we believe it? My
challenge as a satirical artist is how to present ideas to people to
enable them to question and reexamine their beliefs. My hope is that my
work provokes people to look at things in a new way.
job is to question a premise," he concludes, "But information overload
and the strain to get a story first get in the way of getting it right."
What do you think? Post a comment.
-- Rory O'Connor's blog, "Media Is a Plural," can be found at www.roryoconnor.org.