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April (and May and June and...) Fools!

by on April 08, 2015 6:30 AM

In November 2008, a newspaper you may have heard of reported that the war in Iraq had ended.

The same day, the paper informed readers that Congress had voted to cap executive salaries at 15 times the minimum wage, and to place Big Oil under public stewardship with profits to go toward alternative energy research and development.

Of particular interest to Penn State students, the paper also reported that tuition at public universities would henceforth be free.

The paper was The New York Times.

Actually, the paper only looked like The New York Times. It was a fake put out by a group of political pranksters, two of whom call themselves the Yes Men.

In fact, American combat troops would remain in Iraq for two more years, industry's fattest cats currently make about 800 times more than minimum-wage workers and undergraduate tuition at Penn State starts at around $16,000 per year.

Though the stories in the fake paper read like a progressive's wish list, at least some readers were fooled. One wrote:

"I saw this on someone's desk today. My heart soared. Then I realized it was a cruel prank. My heart fell.

"Stop breaking my heart! People are dying. Our hope is for war to end. This does nothing to hasten peace. You are wasting precious time and energy that could be devoted to worthy causes, not sophomoric pranks. Though laughter is good medicine, your brand of "humor" is a poisoned pill."

I thought of that anguished response when the Yes Men spoke at Penn State last week. Andy Bichlbaum (aka Jacques Servin) and Mike Bonanno (aka Igor Vamos) showed clips of some of their other exploits. In one of them, Bichlbaum, passing himself off as a Dow Chemical executive, announced on a BBC news program that Dow at long last was going to compensate people injured and sickened in an explosion in a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, in 1984. (Dow now owns Union Carbide.)

It was a convincing performance. Dow's worth immediately nosedived by about $2 billion. The company was forced to tell the world that it was not, in fact, paying out $12 billion to Bhopal disaster victims.

Shaming the company was the point of the hoax, of course, but a bleeding heart in the Penn State crowd (guess who?) commented that it seemed cruel to have raised and then dashed the hopes of the Bhopal survivors.

Bichlbaum and Bonanno had fielded that question before. Their response was that it gives too little credit to the victims: After 20 years of stonewalling by Union Carbide/Dow Chemical, the people of Bhopal were not about to pre-spend the windfall. Even those who were disappointed when the hoax was revealed saw the value of the renewed public attention to their sufferings.

I wasn't wholly convinced. It's delicious to see the Yes Men fool high-powered journalists, bureaucrats and technocrats. Such people should be more skeptical. But fooling the little guy just seems bratty.

That said, it's a hoot to watch the hoodwinking of supposed sophisticates. One of the Yes Men's favorite pranking techniques entails getting themselves on a conference program, which seems to be as simple as writing a phony letter on phony letterhead. Thus legitimized by the conference organizers, they have no trouble gaining audiences' polite attention to even the most preposterous presentations.

If anyone in the room suspects that their leg is being pulled, they lack the gumption to say so. After all, none of their peers is objecting. Perhaps, everyone concludes, they are witnessing an example of the much-prized "thinking outside the box."

Suddenly it becomes easier to imagine the scene at the Bush White House in 2002 when the administration's top chicken hawks made their case for toppling Saddam Hussein. One can only wonder how many higher-ups in the room (including, perhaps, the president himself) thought, "Uh, why are we going after a guy who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks?" but didn't want to be the one to say it out loud.

Thus do "the best and the brightest" accede to the worst and the dumbest.

The Yes Men also show us how scarily easy it is to dupe us journalists. When Bichlbaum presented himself to the BBC as Dow spokesman "Jude Finisterra," producers were too giddy about getting the Bhopal scoop to verify that this was a real person who really worked for Dow.

A similar enthusiasm for a blockbuster seems to have gotten the best of Rolling Stone magazine last November when it published the story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. According to an independent report released this week, the magazine failed to perform the most basic fact checking.

The manner in which the Yes Men expose the hypocrisy, greed, shamelessness and gullibility of the powers that be, including the press, is both hilarious and brave.

It is also deeply disturbing.


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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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