September 12 - 19, 1 9 9 6
[Media Hoax]

The Merry Prankster

With his multiple identities and elaborate hoaxes, Joey Skaggs has fooled giants from ABC to the Washington Post. Meet the ultimate media critic.

by Rob Walker

All the world loves to see the experts, and the establishment, made a fool of.

-- writer Clifford Irving, who once parlayed his claim to have interviewed the reclusive Howard Hughes into a hefty book contract, and later went to jail when the fraud was exposed

This past spring, a physicist called Alan Sokal rocked the academic world and made the editors of a major intellectual journal look pretty silly when they published his gibberish-filled parody as an authentic scholarly work. And the humor magazine Might, in an effort to mock the sensational news media, snowed readers and Hard Copy, and set news organizations running after a story that claimed former Eight Is Enough child actor Adam Rich had died. But frankly, when it comes to making fools of the experts, there is no one like Joey Skaggs.

Skaggs, a lean ex-Brooklynite who favors cowboy boots, is a surprisingly affable artist who has made it his life's work to embarrass the Establishment, and to humiliate the media in particular. "They have a big stake in making everyone believe that they have integrity," he said matter-of factly one rainy afternoon at a SoHo café, as he handed over an immense packet of news clippings dating back more than 20 years.

In 1969, Skaggs dragged an enormous wooden cross up Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick's Cathedral on Easter Sunday, and, as he put it in a 1987 interview in San Francisco's Re/Search magazine, "It got media attention. Because of that, I had a sense of my own power." Later, he satirized tourists who gawked at Greenwich Village bohemians by chartering a tour bus full of hippies to observe the exotic lifestyles of the bourgeoisie in their natural habitat, Queens.

But in 1976, his work moved to a new level. Those early brushes with the press inspired him to attempt a different kind of conceptual piece, one that would make it clear that the media were far from infallible -- that reporters, in fact, were more than willing to forgo some deep digging in their shameless pursuit of an apparently hot story.

So Skaggs took out an ad in the Village Voice that read CATHOUSE FOR DOGS and announced "a savory selection of hot bitches." And he sent out press releases trumpeting this great new way to reward your dog: get him laid. Potential customers, furious animal-rights activists, and, of course, the press started calling immediately. The local ABC affiliate did a segment. Skaggs finally gave up the truth when he was subpoenaed by the state attorney general. The ABC affiliate, he says, never retracted its story.

The ideas behind that hoax have changed little over time. What Skaggs wanted to do was demonstrate that the media aren't the all-knowing institutions they pretend to be. So he has stuck, essentially, to the same formula. First, he concocts a story that he thinks will tempt the media's ravenous appetite while underscoring a larger point about the press's willingness to believe stories that play to certain cultural or ethnic biases. Then Skaggs sends out press releases, gives bogus interviews, and waits for the coverage to roll in. Eventually, he exposes the hoax, usually by way of a press release that makes clear his critical intentions. One recent release reads:

Joey Skaggs coaxes the media into reporting provocative, sensational, sexational, or downright ridiculous stories he has contrived. This affords him a world-wide audience for his elaborate satires. Skaggs forces reporters and the public alike to question and enter into dialogue on issues he perceives to be vital concerning morality and ethics, truth in news reportage, sensationalism, the effect the media has on public opinion and taste, and vice versa. Running through his work is a constant message to both the media and the general public to question authority in all its forms and not to ever trade critical judgment for wishful thinking.

It's a provocative stance. But has it gotten Joey Skaggs into journalism textbooks? Of course not. And that's too bad: if anyone ought to be interested in the Skaggs oeuvre, it's an aspiring journalist. The Fourth Estate, with its power to shape reality, carries the burden of informing the body politic. When a weakness for sensationalism short-circuits the journalistic process, the dangers extend beyond the day's headlines. Sensationalism is an intrusion of media logic into political affairs; it makes people impatient with more complicated and important issues that warrant consideration.

In journalism, though, the bottom line is, there's no more fundamental error than reporting a story that turns out to be a complete fabrication. When Skaggs shows just how easy it is for a reporter's deadline pressures, preconceived notions, and plain old laziness allow a bogus "report" to be generated, he is, in effect, the ultimate media critic.

Skaggs is not the only person to have fooled the American media, but there is probably no one who has done it so many times, so effectively, for so long. He sees his work to be a legitimate critique of the entire media process: there is no surer way to mar the news-gatherer's authoritative façade. And because attacking that myth of authority remains his exclusive motivation, he tends to disassociate himself from all other hoaxes -- particularly sophomoric stunts like Might's. "The most important part for me," he says, "is the intent."

When he protests being lumped in with other pranksters, you have to understand: nobody has a record like Skaggs's, and no hoaxer inspires such vehemence. "He's a schmuck," says one reporter at a major media organization. "What he does proves nothing."

To make things doubly embarrassing for his targets, Skaggs laces his hoaxes with clues that ought to tip off the media. As Dr. Josef Gregor, head of an organization called Metamorphosis, Skaggs touted super-vitamins made from cockroach hormones; UPI put the story on the wire. As Joe Bones, he headed the fictitious Fat Squad Commandos, who, for $300 a day, would pressure dieters to adhere to their regimens; both the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote it up, and David Hartman assured Good Morning America watchers, "Yes, that is his real name." As Father Joseph, he did interviews with story-starved reporters at the 1992 Democratic National Convention about his combination bicycle/confessional -- the Portofess, "for people on the go!" USA Today and CBS were among the believers. As himself on Geraldo, he planted a fake AP reporter in the audience, who described to the smiling host a prank that never happened, and suggested that Skaggs's ideas be conveyed to every journalism student in the country to teach them to curb their hunger for a good story long enough to put in the research time.

Skaggs has also hoaxed his way onto Canadian television (as the inventor of a virtual-sex machine) and the BBC (as Baba Wa Simba, practitioner of a new stress-relief therapy that involves roaring like a lion).

Sometimes he even lets activists help him publicize his work. In 1994, he mailed dog shelters 1500 crudely written letters; in them, he claimed to be from a Korean company seeking to turn unwanted hounds into a canned-food product supposedly popular among Asians. The gist of the text: "Dog is good food. . . . Our business getting very big. . . . Dog no suffer. We have quick death for dog." Skaggs put his phone number on the letter and a fake message on his machine -- but he never actually got involved in the mechanics of the hoax; he didn't have to. Soon animal-rights groups were demanding investigations, and reporters were using those demands as the basis for a story. "Dogs for food?" led the "exclusive" item on New York's WWOR-TV evening news broadcast. In all of these instances, Skaggs argues, he was making points not just about sloppy reporting, but about the media's particular cultural biases, and their sometimes shameful weakness for stories that pander to audiences' worst instincts.

Hoaxes as a means of entertainment or pointed satire (as opposed to chicanery) are nothing new. The word "hoax" is derived from hocus-pocus, a nonsense term that was used to lampoon Latin mass in the 16th century. Early media hoaxes -- sensational, fabricated stories -- generally originated within the media itself and helped boost the circulation of 19th-century newspapers. Such was the case when the New York Sun in 1835 reported that scientists had spotted creatures living on the moon. Also from that tradition came Orson Welles's War of the Worlds, probably the grandest hoax ever perpetrated on a broadcast audience.

Skaggs's hoaxes are a little different. He's not interested in fooling a wide audience -- just the people who are usually in charge of dispensing images and ideas via the media. In fact, Skaggs's work has been described by writer Mark Dery as "culture jamming."

In Dery's 1993 essay in the Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, culture jamming refers to media-sabotage tactics. Hoaxes, billboard alteration, pirate radio, and "subvertising" (as practiced in Adbusters magazine) are all forms of culture jamming.

Each of these practices owes a debt to Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, and the satirical media stunts of the 1960s that expressed political dissent -- throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, testifying before Congress in an Uncle Sam getup. All forms of authority were being questioned in the '60s, but really it wasn't until the post-Watergate era that the power of the press seemed to approximate that of the government. Investigative journalism took on the fervor of an idealistic crusade, and reporters relished their role as enlightened watchdog.

The fact that so few people were questioning this role in the mid '70s no doubt inspired Skaggs to do just that. Making a mockery of the journalistic method -- and, by implication, the ethos behind it -- is, according to Dery, "culture jamming in its purest form."

Fast-forward 20 years to one of Skaggs's more recent hoaxes, and you'll find he's still quite active. Late last year there was such national dissatisfaction with the O.J. Simpson verdict, Skaggs says, that it seemed only a definitive answer from some godlike authority could make America feel better. So a press release from a Dr. Joseph Bonuso of New York University was soon issued, announcing that the Solomon Project -- a fake NYU project developing a jury machine -- had perfected a computer that subjects testimony to "voice-stress analysis" and then spits out a verdict. Skaggs started doing interviews as Bonuso, and ended up on CNN. On the network's World-Wide Web site, Bonuso is quoted as saying, "We found O.J. guilty [of murder] beyond a reasonable doubt." There was also a picture of Skaggs, labeled "Bonuso." In other words, he'd done it again.

Skaggs himself doesn't lack for coverage either, even if he's not a household word. John Tierney, of the New York Times Magazine, observed Skaggs's method from start to finish and wrote about the Korean dog-food hoax after the fact. The New Yorker did a similar we're-in-on-it Talk of the Town piece about the Solomon Project this past February. And as the New Yorker noted, Skaggs was being followed around at the time by the camera of Hoop Dreams director Frederick Marx. The Voyager Company is planning to produce a CD-ROM of Skaggs's work.

Clearly, the man doesn't shrink from the spotlight -- but, then, where else could he fight the battles he's trying to fight? Skaggs remains confident that he will continue to get away with his pranks. "People always ask me, `Don't you think they're going to wise up? Don't they know who you are now?' " He laughs: "They'll just forget me again."

Maybe so. But meanwhile, surprisingly, media professionals do not universally dismiss him. "It speaks poorly of the way newsrooms work," Columbia journalism professor Rhoda Lipton says of the Solomon Project's success. A producer at ABC for 15 years, Lipton lays some of the blame on shrinking news budgets that reduce the reporter pool even as the craving for more extreme stories grows. Networks, especially, have gradually tightened their news budgets and shifted their resources to more profitable areas; even Walter Cronkite lamented in a recent issue of the Nation that news staffs are spread too thin. "I think," says Lipton of news organizations, that "they're taking in people that don't even know what a story is. . . . I don't like what it bodes for journalism in general." Indeed, CNN could have avoided falling for the Solomon hoax with just one phone call to NYU. A CNN spokesman says that after being duped on the Solomon story, the network is evaluating its fact-gathering process to make sure it never happens again.

Paul Friedman, a vice-president at ABC News, was once the victim of a hoax perpetrated by Christopher Buckley, who edits a magazine called Forbes FYI. Buckley ran an item claiming his publication had learned "through private channels" that the Kremlin planned to auction off Lenin's corpse. World News Tonight, then produced by Friedman, ran with the story -- and had to fess up the next night.

Five years later, Friedman still considers that prank less than constructive, but even he concedes there might a lesson in all this. "I think he's got a point," Friedman says, referring to Skaggs. "Some journalists do cut corners on their way to what seems like a hot story." Echoing Lipton, he points out that researchers are often the first casualties of budget cuts.

"Knowing what I know about how newsrooms work," he adds, "I could pull practically anything."

Rob Walker is a New York-based writer.

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