TVBarn.com
April 1, 2005


Posted by Aaron Barnhart

Before Memogate, There Was Solomon

An April Fools' memory for the ages, courtesy of the O.J. channel.

Today is the 20th annual April Fools' Day parade in New York City. Beginning at noon at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, it will feature a long line of celebrity impersonators marking what the parade's creator, Joey Skaggs, calls "the day designated to commemorate the perennial folly of mankind." Among those scheduled to appear, Skaggs announced in a press release, is a veritable Who's Who of media fools from 2004:

This year's floats will include the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth float, sinking in a sea of lies; the New York Governor George Pataki float in a canoe up a canal without a paddle; the Mud Wrestling float, with Michael Moore taking on all challengers; the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons "We'll Kick Your Butt" float (bystanders are invited to throw beer); the NHL Ice Rink float featuring owners and players kicking each others' butts; and the Airlines' Lost Luggage float. The rear of the parade will be flanked by an empty flatbed truck representing the "Where's God?" float.

I trust that if you, a discerning TV Barn reader, have read this far into the story, you've figured out that the April Fools' Day Parade is itself an April Fools' Day joke (and my parade picture above is little more than a Fark-quality Photoshop job by yours truly).

The April Fools' Day parade is an exquisite prank carried out each and every year by Skaggs, the great media hoaxster who, along with Howard Stern's favorite prank caller Captain Janks, routinely remind us that the lords of the press are oftentimes just as dumb as we are - they just have access to the masses, who are occasionally treated to hilarious displays of media incompetence and stupidity when one of these pranksters gets past their curiously fluid checkpoints.

But 2005 marks another special anniversary in the career of Joey Skaggs. It was 10 years ago (okay, a little more than nine years ago, in late 1995) that he pulled off his most memorable and delightful prank on the media. It was called the Solomon Project.

Solomon was a distributed program running on a set of super computers, that would deliberate upon the facts and evidence of a legal case and deliver a definitive sentence, eliminating the need for juries, and radically reducing the role of judges. All witnesses, lawyers, and judges would be subjected to voice stress analysis and polygraph telemetry to assure their honesty. There would no longer be the chance of inequity in the courtroom due to race, sex, religion, or financial standing.

What's key in understanding the timing of the Solomon announcement was that the O.J. Simpson criminal trial had just ended. Simpson had been acquitted, and much of America - well, white America at least - was outraged. Here, then, was a way to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that O.J. had, in fact, done it: Plug all the evidence in a computer and voila, guilty!

Which is exactly what Skaggs purported to do. As is his usual practice, he mailed out thousands of press releases, announcing that "Dr. Joseph Bonuso" and "150 computer scientists and attorneys" affiliated with the New York University School of Law and "specializing in the field of artificial intelligence, had, over the last seven years, developed a solution to the crisis of American jurisprudence."

Bonuso/Skaggs was quoted in legal journals and newspapers (sample). But it was the third wave of press releases - the one announcing that Solomon had pronounced O.J. guilty - that got him on CNN.

Here, according to Skaggs, is what happened:

In mid December, CNN contacted Dr. Bonuso, requesting a demonstration. They told him exactly what they hoped to see and scheduled a time to come. On December 27, the 3rd floor of the Voyager Company, a CD ROM publishing group in Soho, New York, was transformed into the headquarters of the Solomon Project. The Voyager sign was replaced with the Solomon Project sign and graphics, one screen deep, were mounted on the computer screens. 25 computer graphics artists were given parts to play in the drama that was about to unfold.

Several of Skaggs' friends who have appeared in or documented many of his other performances, came to help out. The CNN crew was unfazed by the appearance of several video crews. This simply helped to convince them they were on to something hot. They filmed for over an hour and never once were suspicious. On December 29, 1995, CNN broadcast extensive coverage of the Solomon Project on both of its television networks and on CNN Interactive. On January 30, 1996, they broadcast a lengthy retraction, having found out, the hard way, that they had been had.

My favorite detail of that appearance, noted in a wonderful New Yorker piece shortly after the scam, was the graphic that appeared on one of the computer screens, visible to anyone watching CNN: In large block type it read simply: GUILTY.

I thought of the Solomon Project quite a bit last fall, when the Memogate scandal broke. In a way, the two hoaxes were given prominence by the very same unconscious urge. It is that urge, peculiar to the modern Western mind, to have objective proof validating our prejudices and suspicions.

There he was, Dan Rather, in possession of a document that confirmed what millions of Americans - and perhaps Dan himself - had suspected: that George W. Bush was a shirker of national duty and had no right to lecture anyone on patriotism. He had found proof to endorse a prejudice. Maybe even his own prejudice.

It is a core belief of media hoaxsters, especially Skaggs, that the press are suckers for hoaxes when they are calibrated to their unconscious biases, much in the same way that millions of people daily forward e-mails to their friends and colleagues containing bogus information that is easily refutable (if they only knew about snopes.com) but which mutates and survives for eons because it speaks to some inner fear or belief we hold dear.

I wrote Joey Skaggs last fall and told him I saw parallels between Memogate and the Solomon Project. He sent me a reply comparing George W. Bush's transgressions to Rather's:

Dan Rather, CBS News Anchor

1. given documents he thought were true
2. failed to thoroughly investigate the facts
3. reported documents to the American people as true to make his case
4. when confronted with the facts, apologized and launched an investigation
5. number of Americans dead: 0
6. should be fired as CBS News Anchor

George W. Bush, President of the United States

1. given documents he thought were true
2. failed to thoroughly investigate the facts
3. reported documents to the American people as true to make his case
4. when confronted with the facts, continued to report untruth and stonewalled an investigation
5. number of Americans dead: 1100
6. should be given four more years as President of the United States

Well, that wasn't really my point. In fact, I took issue with point #4 - Dan, like Dubya, did indeed stonewall, did continue to report untruth and attacked his accusers for more than a week on the "CBS Evening News."

Well, that wasn't really my point. In fact, I took issue with point #4 - Dan, like Dubya, did indeed stonewall, did continue to report untruth and attacked his accusers for more than a week on the "CBS Evening News."

I'd meant to follow up with Skaggs, but I didn't, and April Fools' Day comes only once a year, and I'm late for the parade.


© 2005 Joey Skaggs