COMMENTARY


Contents:

Mother Jones: Jumping the Snark
Wall Street Journal: The New Pranksters
Honolulu Weekly: The Media Manipulator (No, Not Santa!)
NY Arts Magazine: Interview
TVBarn.com: Before Memogate, There Was Solomon
New York Times: Don't Read This. It Could Be a Trick.
Mediachannel.org: April Media Fools
ABCNews.com: The Boy Who Cried 'Fool'
The Independent: Confidence tricks
MacDirectory: Interview
McSweeney's: Hoaxes Without End
Quill: DUPED! When journalists fall for fake news
Portrait of Joey Skaggs
New York Times: If You Fool Us Once, Jail for You
This Isn't Funny, by Joey Skaggs
ABCNews.com: In Praise of a Liar
New York Times: Journalists Really Do Have an Agenda
Visual Opinion (VO): Interview
Extra! March/April: The Art of the Con
www.ourfirsttime.com: Commentary
The Phoenix: Media Hoax - The Merry Prankster
The Big Book of Hoaxes: Cartoon
Fade to Black Comedy Magazine: Interview



Mother Jones
November/December 2009

By Dave Gilson

Jumping the Snark


In an age of Yes Men, flash mobs, birthers, and fake pundits, is the prank dead?

WHAT'S A GOOD PRANK WORTH? How about $2 billion? That's how much Dow Chemical's stock value dipped in just 23 minutes on the morning of December 3, 2004, after its spokesman went on the BBC to announce that the company would make amends for the 1984 Bhopal toxic-gas disaster "simply because it's the right thing to do." (Dow had acquired Union Carbide, the original owner of the Bhopal chemical plant, in 1999.) Within the hour, the flack was exposed as one of the Yes Men, a duo that's spent the past decade perfecting the art of anti-corporate trickery. The feat cemented their reputation as the world's preeminent political pranksters (a reputation they recently reaffirmed by pranking the US Chamber of Commerce). It also proved that a punch line can occasionally pack a real punch.

The Bhopal stunt kicks off the pair's new film, The Yes Men Fix the World, the follow-up to their self-titled 2004 movie. But don't let the puffed-up title fool you into thinking that the Yes Men believe their hijinks are actually making the world a better place. A better title would have been The Prank Is Dead.

The exploits documented in both films follow the same basic script: First, the Yes Men create false identities and silly names; then they infiltrate conference halls and banquet rooms where they unveil Swiftian PowerPoint presentations and ludicrous inventions meant to expose the foibles of free-market capitalism. Posing as McDonald's reps, they've suggested making fast food from human excrement. They've passed out samples of ExxonMobil's new, corpse-based renewable fuel. While posing as WTO spokesman Hank Hardy Unruh at a textile conference, Yes Man No. 1 Andy Bichlbaum tore off his business attire to reveal the "Management Leisure Suit," a skintight gold bodysuit with an inflatable three-foot phallus. Their victims are usually too dumbfounded or clueless to object. (The Chamber of Commerce being a notable exception: After the Yes Men held a press conference this October where they announced that the business lobby was making a dramatic about-face on its climate change policy, the Chamber discarded savvy PR strategy and sued the Yes Men for trademark infringement, unfair competition, and false advertising.)

While the first Yes Men movie was animated by an impish exuberance-Can you believe we keep getting away with this?-the latest is pervaded by a sense of self-loathing. After unveiling the Halliburton SurvivaBall-a "gated community for one" that turns the wearer into a giant beige gumball-to a roomful of insurance managers, Yes Man No. 2 Mike Bonanno laments, "Instead of freaking out, they just took our business cards. Our effort had been a failure. And come to think of it, all of our efforts had been failures...Maybe making fun of stupid ideas was a stupid idea." After playing the fool for so long, the Yes Men have come to suspect that they've become fools themselves.

Actually, they've become entertainers. In the five years since The Yes Men came out, pranks have morphed from an outlet for political and artistic outsiders into another form of popular amusement, from Borat and Bruno to Punk'd and Pranked. Beyond the realm of celebrity spoofs, big budgets, and seamless editing, the Internet has further democratized the practical joke, at least in its most sophomoric form: YouTube hosts more than 500,000 prank videos ranging from crank calls and friends humiliating drunken friends to the ongoing "prank war" between the CollegeHumor.com guys. For more inspired fare, you can easily lose an hour engrossed in the antics of Improv Everywhere, a New York-based group that orchestrates elaborate flash-mob "missions," including pants-free commutes and "freezes" in which hundreds of people stop dead in their tracks in a public place for a few minutes. Joining the fun is as easy as Rickrolling your closest friends.

"Everyone's become a prankster," says Joey Skaggs, a veteran hoaxster who's spent more than four decades coming up with clever ways to con gullible journalists, including-it must be said-us. In 2000, Mother Jones published an item about a proposed cemetery-cum-amusement park that turned out to be a Skaggs spoof. Skaggs, who tracks the field on artoftheprank.com, says he doesn't mind the competition, but complains that quantity hasn't been matched by quality. Pranks have "become so ubiquitous that it's become harder for what's really meaningful to stand out," he says. "The bar has been lowered."

In Skaggs' view, any prank worth paying attention to is inherently subversive. Yet most of whom the Wall Street Journal has dubbed "the new pranksters" have little agenda beyond yucks-and bucks. Charlie Todd, the 30-year-old creator of Improv Everywhere, is adamant that the sole purpose of his happenings is "spreading chaos and joy." The emperor has no clothes, so why not let him ride the subway, too? The hipster impresario recently started offering himself to advertisers as a prankster for hire. In June 2008, Todd staged one of his signature freezes as part of a viral marketing campaign for Taco Bell's Frutista Freeze, and he's since signed a sponsorship deal with Yahoo.

Attention, rather than intention, also drives the new crop of political pranksters. Take Martin Eisenstadt, a pseudonymous pundit who set up a phony conservative think tank and made the rounds during the 2008 election cycle. Posing as a McCain aide, he took in a Mother Jones reporter who briefly bought his claim that the candidate supported building a casino in Baghdad. But his biggest coup was pretending to be the source of Fox News' postelection report that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country, not a continent. This false claim inadvertently allowed Palin to denounce the original story as a hoax, even as the reporter stood by it. Eisenstadt is, of course, concluding his 15 minutes of fame with a new book, I Am Martin Eisenstadt.

One reason that Yes Men wannabes like Eisenstadt seem so lame is that they're competing with the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and The Onion. Satirists shouldn't be confused with pranksters, but the most trusted names in fake news (and their many imitators) have further mainstreamed the prankish aesthetic. But in doing so, they've lost the element of surprise, an essential ingredient of any effective prank. Even if you view the rise of this parallel media universe as a slo-mo prank of sorts, now everyone's in on the joke. The audience tunes in to get their media-weary worldview humorously confirmed, and even politicians who were once conned by Ali G now line up to appear on The Daily Show.

And political pranks are no longer solely the domain of snarky liberals. Barack Obama's victory has spawned an army of conservative No Men spewing accusations about birth certificates and death panels, inquiring about the executive foreskin, and making the inflammatory assertion that the president is just another guy with a weird name pulling off a clever feat of impersonation. Though it isn't intended to be funny, this campaign of "saturation bullshitting" (as one of Kevin Drum's readers put it perfectly) comes straight from the playbook used by Skaggs and the Yes Men. The haters have once again shown that the greatest hoax is how nonsense can be peddled with a straight face-and how the media are willing to spread the lies far and wide within hours, yet take weeks to debunk them.

Faced with this political theater of the absurd and prank overload, what's an honest prankster to do? Reached at his office at Parsons school of design, where he holds the title of assistant professor in subversion (no joke), Andy Bichlbaum says he's not throwing in the gold jumpsuit quite yet, just reevaluating the limitations of the prank. Sure, the Bhopal gag scored a PR hit, but it was a mere blip in Dow's overall performance, and the company still refuses to take responsibility. "Okay, we got 600 articles in the US press to be written about the situation in Bhopal," Bichlbaum says. "But how do you make things change systematically?" He and Bonanno have come to see that some issues-like climate change-are too big and complex for a couple of scruffy guys in cheap suits to take on alone, but "it's not like we're going to stop doing what we've been doing. It's what we're good at; we're not good at organizing millions of people."

The Yes Men have realized what Abbie Hoffman, the godfather of the modern political put-on, figured out long ago: The best practical jokes are primarily triumphs of spectacle. Witness the legendary 1967 stunt in which he and a band of Yippies rained dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. A few traders scrambled for the cash-but Hoffman saw that the real impact was psychic: "In the minds of millions of teenagers the stock market had just crashed." And if his political pranks simply amused people, so be it. "You don't turn up your noses at entertainment because entertainment is way up there on the hierarchy of needs."

We need pranks-weighty and lightweight-now more than ever. In Capitalism: A Love Story, populist prankster Michael Moore wanders Wall Street with empty sacks to retrieve federal bailout money. It's a biting, timely reversal of Hoffman's stock exchange gag, but unlikely to leave audiences demanding "pitchforks and torches," as Moore has suggested. Pranks can provide sudden jolts of awareness or catharsis, but we shouldn't expect them to both mock and mend the world. Nor should we worry about being LOLed into complacency by mindless pranks. Good pranks aren't dead, simply evolving. Just as Sacha Baron Cohen's first three personas have gotten stale and the Yes Men are searching for a new gig, so will the current crop of predictable pranksters be pushed aside by a new batch of jokers who've concluded that it's better to light a stink bomb than curse the darkness.



Wall Street Journal
September 12, 2008

By Ellen Gamerman

The New Pranksters


Across the country, young people are joining campaigns that are drawing thousands of followers inspired by a common purpose.

They're not handing out leaflets at rallies for Barack Obama or John McCain. Instead, they're posing like statues in public squares, dropping their pants in train stations and bursting into song in malls.

Cities are being swept up in a wave of inane pranks. On a recent weekend, "zombies" smeared with fake blood idly roamed the streets in downtown San Francisco. That same weekend, a crowd of people in New York's Union Square danced to music that no one else could hear; and in Berkeley, Calif., jokesters in white, flowing robes handed out pamphlets at a farmer's market, touting the benefits of joining a cult. (Reason No. 5: "A great excuse not to talk to your birth family anymore.")

"We're finding ourselves more and more disconnected," says Ari Lerner, a 24-year-old software engineer in Los Angeles who helps run a prankster group called GuerilLA. "We all sit at our computers and we forget there's a sun outside. It's a reaction to that."

Earlier this year, 15 pairs of identical twins, dressed in identical outfits, filled a New York subway car and mirrored each other's actions, without explanation. On different days over the next month, groups in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto plan to gather in public parks and listen to the same MP3 recorded set of instructions on their headphones. Onlookers will be presented with the spectacle of a seemingly random group of people playing games like freeze tag and Twister in unison.

Such events are part of a broader phenomenon that includes raves, guerrilla theatre, flash mobs, performance art and other public stunts. The urban playground movement encourages mass pillow-fights in public parks. In the Free Hugs Campaign, people go up to strangers and hug them.

Prankster groups are sprouting up around the country. Boston-based Banditos Misteriosos says its mailing list has doubled to more than 2,000 people since the start of the year. Scene Diego, which formed in San Diego, Calif., in February, says it has more than 1,000 people signed up as "undercover agents." And the Urban Prankster Network, a Web site started earlier this year by New York comedian Charlie Todd to help people organize stunts in their own cities, says it now has more than 23,300 members world-wide.

Mr. Todd, a 29-year-old teacher with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, is also the founder of Improv Everywhere, created in 2001 and credited with popularizing the current prank phenomenon. Mr. Todd says it began as a way to entertain himself and his friends. They would dream up outlandish scenarios and then try to make them happen.

Today, Mr. Todd's pranks typically involve hundreds of participants and precise choreography to create what looks like a weird, spontaneous moment. He says he never explains the pranks to onlookers. Instead, he lets people draw their own conclusions. "Some people look at them and say, 'Wow, that's a work of art,' " he says. "Others say, 'Wow, that's really stupid.' "

Some pranks just fall flat. One organizer in Phoenix tried to throw an impromptu party in a living room display at an Ikea in May, but it was a flop. Her posting on the Urban Prankster Network read: "Ikea mission: FAILED!!! Why!? Because only six people showed up."

Joey Skaggs, a longtime media prankster and author of the Art of the Prank blog, is critical of some of the latest stunts. Mr. Skaggs, whose best-known pranks include duping a New York television station in 1976 with a story about a bordello for dogs, says the stunts lack a subversive, anti-establishment edge. Because of that, people are less likely to stop and think about what they're seeing - or even care. "The bar's been really lowered," he says. "There's a lot of junk out there calling itself pranks."

Today's prankster culture has roots in the Vietnam era, a time of social upheaval and political unrest. In 1967, at the height of the war, activist Abbie Hoffman and beat poet Allen Ginsberg organized hundreds of demonstrators to stage a mock levitation of the Pentagon. By chanting and singing outside the building, they said, they'd perform an exorcism and end the war. The stunt was part of a larger demonstration at the Pentagon that drew thousands of people and led to nearly 700 arrests. A year later, similar activities meant to lampoon and disrupt the Democratic convention in Chicago were staged by the Youth International Party, or Yippies - founded by Mr. Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and others - and included nominating a pig for president.

Some contemporary pranks owe much to their '60s precursors. During the Republican convention earlier this month, "Lobbyists for McCain" dressed in dark power suits and gathered in a parking lot in St. Paul, Minn., grilling hot dogs at a tailgate party and handing out fake money. The aim, the group said, was to call attention to what it called lobbyists' influence over the Republican campaign agenda. ("It's certainly common for there to be political theater surrounding candidates' events," says McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds. "It's part of campaigning.")

The latest pranksters are "urban alchemists," akin to so-called guerrilla gardeners who cram plantings into sidewalk cracks, or people who create "found art" made from random items plucked from the streets, according to Jonathan Wynn, a sociologist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

"These are people in cities who take the public spaces and everyday life and make something kind of magical about it," he says.

Improv Everywhere pranks have typically been aimed at the consumer culture. In one 2006 stunt, 80 people dressed in what looked like Best Buy employee uniforms - blue shirts and khakis - walked around in one of the chain's stores in Manhattan, much to the confusion of everyone around them. Mr. Todd says a store employee called the police and the pranksters disbanded after the authorities arrived. Best Buy spokeswoman Susan Busch says the company "took it in good stride" and would only object if the prank interfered with customers shopping.

Last year, the group sent 111 shirtless men into an Abercrombie & Fitch in New York City, in a spoof of the chain's use of bare-chested hunks in its ad campaigns. The men (some fat, some thin) were told to say they were shopping for a shirt. Spokesman David Cupps says the company has no comment.

The group also sent more than 50 redheads to stand in front of a Manhattan Wendy's and chant "No pigtails!" in a mock protest of what they said was the inaccurate portrayal of redheads in the chain's ad campaign. Company spokesman Bob Bertini says the stunt was a minor distraction and showed people "engaging with the brand."

In fact, some advertisers are starting to see the marketing value of pranks. Taco Bell recently hired Mr. Todd to stage a "freeze" in a new restaurant in Flushing, N.Y., where paid extras posing as employees and patrons simply froze in place, baffling the actual customers. The stunt was later used in a viral marketing campaign for the restaurant's Frutista Freeze drink, and a video of the prank has been viewed 500,000 times online, says Taco Bell spokesman Will Bortz. "We thought it was brilliant," he says.

Some of Mr. Todd's admirers objected, however. "Taco Bell killed the freeze," says David Kartsonis, a 21-year-old video and TV producer from Redondo Beach, Calif., who helps organize events for GuerilLA. He says he won't do the stunt now because it's been overexposed. Mr. Kartsonis also complains that Improv Everywhere's videos seem geared more toward viral popularity online than in-the-moment fun: "They spend a lot more time worrying about the end viewer. We focus on people who are actually there at the time enjoying it."

Mr. Todd says he did the Taco Bell stunt after the freeze craze had passed; freezes have already been performed in 50 countries, he says. Sensitive to suggestions that he has been co-opted in some way, he adds that he keeps his commercial events separate from Improv Everywhere, so that prank participants won't show up for a stunt whose content is controlled by an advertiser.

Recently Mr. Todd began accepting corporate sponsorships. In exchange for running a Yahoo logo on the video of his coming MP3 pranks, he says the company is paying him a fee, which he plans to use to hire a production team and possibly stage aerial shots. Mr. Todd says he'll inform participants about Yahoo's involvement beforehand. "If I work on a corporate thing, there's going to be a certain percentage of my fan base who thinks it's evil," he says. "It's been a very difficult thing for me to figure out."

Most prank groups aren't wrestling with such issues, however. They're just trying to pull off a good joke. At a recent "marathon" staged by GuerilLA along the Strand in Manhattan Beach, Calif., unsuspecting joggers and bicyclists encountered a cheering crowd, water stands, a finish line and a person handing out medals.

Prank participants included a 25-year-old assistant video editor (who also feeds people's parking meters, just to be nice), a 51-year-old Verizon customer-service specialist who says he feels "locked in a cube" during the week, and a 36-year-old camera operator who recently proposed to his girlfriend during another stunt.

Gregg Tenser was one of the bewildered runners who broke the finish-line tape. He wanted to power through his 10-mile run, so he didn't stop to ask why people were cheering. "That was curious," he said, jogging away. Had a reporter not told him afterward what was going on, he says, he might never have realized it was a joke.

The 41-year-old money manager says he likes the idea of people doing something crazy for no reason. "It was a fun, borderline-bizarre experience," he says.


SIDEBAR: RANDOM ACTS OF SILLINESS

Unlike many pranks of the past, today's most popular stunts don't feature one prankster at the center of the action, but hundreds of people in on the joke. Using the Internet to organize, pranksters create highly choreographed public spectacles that aim to entertain passersby, or at least take them by surprise. One of this year's most popular pranks, "Frozen Grand Central," has been replicated in more than 100 cities around the world. The stunts, from a zombie walk in San Francisco to a pantless subway ride in New York, often go straight to video. Here's a sampling. (Click on the links to watch video.) -Ellen Gamerman

"Operation Best Buy": In New York City two years ago, people dressed like Best Buy employees converged on one of the chain's stores.

"The Strand Race": In a phony race this summer in Manhattan Beach, Calif., runners and cyclists encountered cheering crowds and a finish line out of nowhere.

"No Shirts": More than 100 shirtless men "shopped" in a New York City Abercrombie & Fitch last year - sort of like the bare-chested men in the store's ads.

"Redheads Protest Wendy's": Redheads "protest" the portrayal of redheads in Wendy's marketing last year.

"San Francisco Zombie Mob 2008: Last month, "zombies" smeared in fake blood lurched around San Francisco.

"Silent Rave Strikes Back": In New York City's Union Square this summer, people danced for more than six hours to music only they could hear.

"Frozen Grand Central": More than 200 people froze at the same time for five minutes in New York's Grand Central Station earlier this year.

"No Pants 2k8: New York City's pantless subway ride drew three times more participants this year than last-about 900 people.



Honolulu Weekly Cover Story
December 20, 2006

By Chris Haire

The Media Manipulator (No, Not Santa!)
Interview with the King of Punk'd: Joey Skaggs


Mother Earth is having hot flashes. The ice caps are melting like a plastic Playboy bunny in the noonday sun. The polar bears are buying Speedos and lining up at the local Artic Circle Brazilian bikini waxer. And the penguins are taking off their tuxedos and going au naturale. If it gets any worse, the seas will begin to boil.

But what about the fish? Surely somebody is thinking about them. Well, somebody is. And no, not the folks at the Wespac. Just some guy named Joey Skaggs.

And he's apparently come up with a pretty fair trade.

Say goodbye to cramped coral reef residences, our finny friends. Say goodbye to the nasty moray eels down the block. Say goodbye to the overgrown kelp in the front yard. And say home sweet home to the latest in upscale aquarium living - fish condos.

Skaggs' condos-complete with kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and baths-are just the sort of place that the upwardly mobile guppie would want to settle into and raise a school.

Bollocks, you say. What does a fish need with a sleigh bed, a Cuisinart and a flush toilet, you ask? After all, the idea that a little beastie that can't remember the previous two seconds needs a pimped-out pad is as ridiculous as a cathouse for dogs or a priest peddling around a portable confessional booth or a pill derived from cockroaches that can cure arthritis, acne, anemia and muscle cramps, and, get this, protect you from the fallout if and when Kim Jung Il gets lucky and lobs a thermonuclear at Hawai`i.

Of course, some folks didn't see it that way back in 1983 when Skaggs first came up with the idea of selling high-end aquariums for snooty fishes. Life magazine, Good Morning America, CBS News, New York Magazine, all took Skaggs and his project seriously. The story even went worldwide. But apparently nobody got the joke. Nobody called Skaggs' commercial venture for what it actually was - shibai.

"It became a phenomenon, and all it was, was a satirical commentary on the gentrification of neighborhoods. Everything was going condo. And I decided we're destroying the planet, the air, the soil, the ocean, so pretty soon the fish will need better homes," he says.

Oddly enough, the media hoax paid off in more ways than one. Not only did Skaggs get to skewer the Izod-wearing, Huey Lewis-listening, "Born in the U.S.A."-misinterpreting, greed-is-good yuppies of the early '80s, the prank gave the prankster a lift for years to come. Museums and art galleries asked to display his guppie aquariums, and after years of nagging, Neiman Marcus finally convinced Skaggs to manufacture fish condos for their customers. They sold for $5,000 a pop.

It wasn't the last time the master manipulator pulled one over on the media. Hell, it wasn't even the first.

The aforementioned cathouse for dogs, the cure-all roach pill, the peddling priests, each began as an idea in Skaggs' head, and through a lot of careful planning, an assist or two from friends and the ability to keep a straight face when talking to eager reporters, they all became full-scale media hoaxes, the kind that show up in the local papers, the kind that appear on the nightly news, the kind that you and your coworkers chat about around the water cooler. "I use the media like a painter uses canvas. I use it to create plausible but nonexistent realities that are staged for the media and consequently the public," he says. "I even do it in the public. It's like a guerrilla theater-type of conceptual performance."

Why does he do it? Is it because Joey Skaggs is rat bastard? Is it because he blames the liberal media for all that is wrong in this country? Nope. Joey Skaggs is a prankster because he wants us to be better than what we are. He wants to shake us out of our complacent ways. He wants us to get off our self-absorbed behinds and look at ourselves in the mirror and see the petty prejudices, fears and follies that control us.

"We all pretty much believe what we are told. We are raised that way. We are deceived from childhood on, you know-the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, whatever else you want to feed your kids," Skaggs says. Over the course of his career, Skaggs, who now divides his time between residences in Kaua`i and Manhattan, has used pranks to comment on the issues of the day. For him, a media hoax is a biting piece of satire brought to life. He highlighted the failures of the judicial system and satirized the current wave of celebrity trials with a 1995 prank about a computer program that would make judges and juries obsolete. The program was called appropriately enough Solomon, and it always delivered the correct verdict. To prove the program worked, Skaggs put O.J. Simpson on trial. The Juice, of course, was found guilty. (CNN fell victim to this hoax. In fact, the cable news network didn't even ask to see Solomon in action.)

In 1986 he satirized fad weight loss diets with the creation of the Fat Squad, a weight-loss group that would make sure that you never-and we mean never-cheat on your diet. In order to do that, customers would be followed around 24/7 by a "commando" who would employ any means necessary to stop its clients from picking up that Twinkie, including beating them silly. (Say "You've just been punk'd" to the Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Good Morning America.)

A 1983 hoax involving the Gypsies Against Stereotypical Propaganda was one of Skaggs' more superficially silly pranks-but one that in hindsight is one of his more thoughtful commentaries, shedding light on both bigotry and political correctness.

The gist of the prank: Fortune telling gypsies living in New York City were going on strike-giving up their professions as tarot- and palm-readers-until somebody, anybody, renamed the offensively named Gypsy moth. They picketed. They protested. They even marched in front of the governor's office.

The ridiculousness of the group's name, G.A.S.P., and the straight-from-the-Hollywood-supply-closet-of-stock-characters-and-stereotypes that Skaggs and company used in their portrayal of gypsies should have clued in both the press and the public. But that's not how prejudice works. It blinds.

Then again, the group's insistence that the Gypsy moth's name be changed-a rather laughably impossible request-also mocked the protest-everything politics of the aggrieved and easily offended. Heady stuff. (The New York Times printed a story on this one, and- this is rare in Skaggs' history-a retraction.)

Hawai`i even got in on the action in 1993 when a man named J.J. Skaggs set off from Kaua`i to California on a sailboard with a backpack of beef stew and little else. Many didn't think twice about the sheer stupidity of the feat.

Skaggs succeeds because people want to believe in the miraculous. "We tend to suspend critical analysis for wishful thinking. I point that out by creating these absurd, almost fantastical, staged events with obvious clues, and yet I am still able to repeatedly access the media, sometimes even the same news source over and over again," Skaggs says. "I'm always scratching my head, `How did I get away with that?' But amazingly and sadly in most instances, I do."

One journalist even fell for two pranks. The first was the fish condo story. The second was Skaggs' 1992 Portafess prank at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. While the master prankster pedaled around a bicycle with a custom-built confessional booth attached to the rear, rickshaw-style, Skaggs found himself immediately the center of attention. He actually had to turn people away; the only folks actually allowed to confess were friends of his who were playing the roles of needy sinners.

The media was no less enraptured. Including the reporter he had tricked before. "Here I am pedaling the confessional booth and I go, `Oh no. He's going to look at me and go, Joey Skaggs, I got you,'" he says. "The clothes made the man. He did not recognize me. He thought I was priest, and that was it."

But not every journalist is so inattentive. "The media of course is irresponsible and gullible at times. There are Jimmy Olsens, but there are journalists that do a fine job of seeking the truth and putting it out there. But my work is not just to illustrate how irresponsible journalists are," Skaggs says. "It's a way in which to bring light to issues I believe are relevant."

Irresponsible or not, journalists are always looking for the sex appeal of any story. Some have it. Some don't. Skaggs' stories almost always do. "There has to be an element that promises you a great visual, a really good press release. Journalists have to see a pay off. And it's got to be somehow some sort of truism, something that is culturally happening," he says. "You have to raise your antennae and tune in to where we are going and how you want to say something very specific about something that is either disturbing or absurd."

Pulling off a prank is no easy task. Some can be accomplished with a press release and a fax machine, while others, like the Final Curtain or BioPEEP, may take months if not a year or more to pull together. "It's like doing a film or a theater piece. You have to work it out, write it out, execute it, produce it, direct it. You have to look at what it takes to pull it off, the production. Do I need people? Do I need props? What kind of location do I need? There is a lot of staging to do it. It's not just like Candid Camera or an instant prank."

As much fun as it is to stage a hoax, Skaggs says that when the curtain is pulled back to reveal that the great and powerful Oz is only a crafty man pulling levers and pushing pedals, that's the true magic moment. "I believe that the revelation of the hoax is the most important aspect of what it is I do in perpetrating the hoax because that is where consciousness is changed. That is where we go, [poof] everything I believed before isn't true. That is the moment of realization, the revelation that I strive for. 'Oh shit, I believed that?' That distinguishes art from a con. I'm not a con artist," Skaggs says. "Ultimately, what my work is all about is who are you, what do you believe, how did you come to those beliefs, do you ever question the source you base your beliefs on? If not, why not?"

And if it's the media on which you base your beliefs on, perhaps it might be a good idea to reconsider. They control the gates through which information passes and they decide what gets through. "They define it every day, in every way. They define it by how they present it, how it is interpreted, and we define it by how we interpret what they are interpreting. From what's fashionable to going to war, from what we wear and what we eat to what we believe," Skaggs says.

He adds, "If I can do it as an individual-access the national news, the national media-with a relatively ridiculous concept, how easy it is for people who have another agenda to manipulate what we think and exploit that."


VITALS

Born 1945 in New York City.

Attended the High School of Art and Design and the School of Visual Arts.

Spent most of his life in New York City, living in the East Village, Greenwich Village and SoHo.

Visted Lihu`e, Kaua`i, in 1980, and immediately fell in love with the Islands. He now lives in a house he built in Anahola. "I've always thought that New York represents the most amazing accomplishments of humanity. Traveling around the Hawaiian Islands, I think that Hawai`i represents the incredible power and creativity of nature," Skaggs says. "I wanted to have both in my life, so I have made both places my home."

Skaggs now divides his time between New York City and Kaua`i.


Joey Skaggs' greatest hits

Skaggs first came to the attention of the press in 1966 after he unveiled a mock-up of a decaying corpse nailed to a cross on Easter in New York City. This decidedly gruesome and morbid Easter Sunday crucifixion, as if there is any other kind, was created to protest "the hypocrisy of the Church and man's inhumanity to man." Needless to say, folks got plenty P.O.ed. Other crucifixion protests followed over the years. Skaggs also built a Vietnamese Nativity, featuring a Vietnamese family as Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. He intended to burn the piece as an anti-war protest, but was thwarted by police.

The Cathouse for Dogs hoax (1976) was Skaggs' first proper media-focused prank. The Celebrity Sperm Bank followed later that year. In the following 10 years, Skaggs pulled off some of his best media hoaxes-the Metamorphosis Cockroach Vitamin Pill, an unbelievable cure-all (1981); the Gypsies Against Stereotypical Propaganda (1982), who found the name of the gypsy moth to be offensive; the too-good-to-be-true sports story of J.J. Skaggs and his attempt to Windsurf from Hawai`i to California (1983); the Fish Condos, for the upwardly mobile guppie (1983); the anti-crosswalk, ticket-writing Gestapo agents of Walk Right (1984); and the diet-enforcing thugs known as the Fat Squad (1986).

In 1986, Skaggs promised to hold an April Fool's Day Parade in New York City. It didn't happen. Every year since, Skaggs has announced the details of the parade, and each year the parade doesn't take place. It remains a yearly ritual.

In 1991, he hoaxed both Geraldo Rivera and the game show To Tell the Truth.

The satirist joined forces with the British television show The Word in 1995. The prank centered around a form of therapy in which participants get down on all fours and growl like lions. Several U.K. media organizations were fooled by the so-wacky-it's-got-to-be-real therapy sessions being offered by African-born guru Baba Wa Simba, played by Skaggs.

Skaggs went global with his most elaborate hoax to date-BioPEEP (1998). The hook: A corporation has discovered a way to addict consumers to its products by using foodborne viruses to alter their DNA. To make it seem real, the prankster built a website for an activist organization, the People for Ethical Evolutionary Practices, with access to top-secret info. The site included links to memos, undercover photographs and computer files. Bogus protests were held in Australia and in New York City. Hands down Skaggs' crowning achievement.

The Final Curtain (2000) captured the imagination of the media, thanks in part to a well constructed website ([www.finalcurtain.com]) and a grim but funny premise. The prank centered around the construction of a cemetery/theme park featuring such fanciful creations as neon-light tombstones and a grave site that showed a time-elapsed video of the decaying corpse below.

The Universal Bullshit Detector Watch went on sale just in time for the 2006 holiday season. As the ad copy says, "It flashes. It moos. It poops. It also tells time" ([www.bswatch.com]).

In 2006 Honolulu Weekly is duped by Joey Skaggs. We're not sure what he did, but we're guessing he fooled us somehow.

(Source: [JoeySkaggs.com]; [Wikipedia.com])

Five great media hoaxes

Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds (1938): Many who tuned into this groundbreaking broadcast were convinced that the Martians had landed in Grovers Mill, N.J., and mankind's days were numbered. Needless to say, the show caused quite a stir and Welles became a star. Years after his death, Welles played a key role in a hoax by comic book author Mark Millar, who had uncovered the Citizen Kane director's long lost notes for a Batman film starring Basil Rathbone as the Dark Knight and James Cagney as the Joker.

The photo of the Loch Ness Monster (1934). You've seen the definitive photo of Nessie-that blurry black and white image of what could be a hand sticking up out of the water, a branch or Nessie's reptilian head. It's as ubiquitous as Rachael Ray. In 1994, a prankster confessed to the hoax, stating that Nessie was nothing more than a toy sub with a dinosaur-head-like attachment.

Bigfoot caught on film (1967). For years, the fuzzed-out film footage caught of Bigfoot in the mountains of California was touted as the real deal. Years later, it was revealed that it was simply a man in a monkey suit running through the woods. (And frankly, who hasn't done that before?) But what ultimately brought Bigfoot to life was the out-of-focus film. Millions were suckered, and Leonard Nimoy discovered a career rebirth as the host of In Search Of>

Paul McCartney leaves the Beatles-for the afterlife (1966). The Paul that played on "Please Please Me" was not the same Paul that sang "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." Nope. The real Macca died in a motorcycle accident and was replaced by a look-alike. In fact, John Lennon admits as much at the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever" when he says "I buried Paul." Or at least that's what a few zonked out hippies believed back in the '60s.

Milli Vanilli sings (1988). Neither Milli nor Vanilli sang on their debut Grammy Award-winning debut. They were simply two models who producers thought would look good on MTV. The real singers were simply session singers. After Milli Vanilli was repeatedly caught lip-syncing in concert, the truth was revealed-Rob and Fab were fakes. Truth be told: There's nothing particularly embarrassing about falling for this hoax. The same can't be said of buying the album. (Source: The Museum of Hoaxes)

2007 Honolulu Weekly



NY Arts Magazine Interview
May 8, 2006

By Mandy Morrison

Joey Skaggs


Mandy Morrison: What influenced your decision to create (performative) work that would interact in a public sphere?

Joey Skaggs: It was 1966 and to my knowledge no one had previously challenged the status quo by presenting provocative, iconoclastic, offensive, illegal street theater using fine art.

Happenings were done in lofts, galleries or other alternative spaces like churches. I had spent over a year collecting found objects and building a 10-foot crucifix made from a telephone pole. I nailed a dead, decayed, skeletal body with exposed genitalia to it. On Easter Sunday, I dragged it on my back into Tompkins Square Park in New York's East Village. It was my personal "scream" of protest [representing] my total rejection of religion.

This was the beginning of numerous unsanctioned performances. I decided I could create my own exhibition space publicly, using the streets of New York as my gallery and the unsuspecting public as my audience. It was the antithesis of the business of art. It wasn't done for financial gain. I was making a statement.

MM: Audiences tend to be both fascinated by, as well as intimidated by, confrontational work. What benefits does the viewer derive from this experience? And how do you think this can affect a large politic?

JS: Over the years I have developed numerous techniques by which to present my performances to a public audience. They span from ironic reversals to juxtapositions of realities, to confrontations that offend large groups of people, to hoaxes that sucker the mass media into reporting fictitious stories. Usually they involve actors and props, and are promoted using advertising and public relations techniques. It's using propaganda to fight propaganda. My work asks what do you believe? How did you come to believe it.

For me, the most important element is when I reveal that none of what everyone has been believing is real. That is when consciousness changes. I want people to extrapolate that they are being fooled all the time by government, corporations, religious organizations and people with an agenda.

MM: What types of performances or experiences have been the most provocative and meaningful to you personally (or, in the case of a group, collectively)? Why?

What's meaningful to me is to be expressive in a creative, intelligent, and responsible way, which is also why the people who help me (as volunteer experts, actors, and participants) are willing to be part of my art. I use provocation to attempt to change the way people think. [Examples can be found at http://www.joeyskaggs.com in the RETRO section where you can scroll the time line for specific performances.] And, that's not always easy or popular.

The dedication, protection, and solidarity that my collaborators give freely is enormously meaningful and actually makes the work possible. Because they remind me that, no matter how strange the circumstances become (I've been threatened, physically attacked, hauled away and deposed) I have the backing of those who will be there to support the intent of the work.

I also find the pompous, irresponsibility of the press meaningful. If not for their gullibility and weakness for a good story, my access to an audience would be greatly reduced.

MM: Do you think that American culture as a whole has become more passive regarding the political issues affecting them or merely preoccupied?

JS: My personal experiences have put me in touch with artists, activists, educators, and individuals from all walks of life, in the U.S. and around the world. I receive many personal e-mails, as well as announcements from intelligent, concerned, aware, politically savvy people who share concerns about issues that affect humanity.

If one only looks at television programming, and entertainment, one could create a totally different hypothesis concerning passivity and preoccupation. But our culture evolves all the time.

MM: Do you think that contemporary artists (and the art community as a whole) generally veer towards certain types of practices for reasons of fashion, conviction, or economics?

JS: My answer is yes, yes, and yes...

BIO

Internationally notorious media prankster Joey Skaggs is an artist who has used the media as his medium since the 1960s.




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."

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.


New York Times
April 1, 2005

Andrew Jacobs

Don't Read This. It Could Be a Trick.


Shortly before noon today, the 20th annual April Fools' Day parade will start its zany prance down Fifth Avenue, complete with whimsical floats, cacophonous music and this year's grand marshals, SpongeBob SquarePants and impersonators standing in for former Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey and the filmmaker Michael Moore, who will goad spectators to spar him on his own "wrestling float."

Sounds like a real crowd pleaser.

As in year's past, news cameras from around the globe will be on the sidelines hoping to capture the perfect wacky shot of what organizers bill as "a commemoration of the perennial folly of mankind."

And as in year's past, those reporters who do show up will end up playing the fool. That is because New York's April Fools' Day parade is a great big hoax, the brainchild of Joey Skaggs, the minence grise of pransksterdom who has been duping the news media with his outlandish stunts for decades.

There's a sucker born every minute, P. T. Barnum reportedly said, and the phantom parade, advertised through official-looking press releases, has drawn a wide range of news media outlets in the past, including CNN, USA Today and, without fail, a camera crew or two from Japan. (As of last night, Fox's "A Current Affair" and the morning show on WB-11 news had confirmed their plans for coverage, Mr. Skaggs said.)

"Sometimes a reporter will call me from Fifth Avenue in a panic, saying he can't find the parade, and I'll say: 'Oh, they're probably already down at Washington Square. You'd better run,' " he said. "It's an important opportunity for all of us to review our inherent foolishness."

Although slightly dampened by the prevailing culture of hair-trigger litigation and political correctness, April Fools' Day is still the only acceptable occasion to humiliate friends and employers in front of as wide an audience as possible. It is the day when Alison Reiser, a Bronx Zoo employee, spends much of the morning fielding calls from gullible souls who have received a message to phone a Mr. Lyon or Mrs. Bear.

It is also a delicious opportunity for Amy and Ann Glynn, identical twin sisters who lead fairly separate lives in Manhattan, to wreak havoc on unsuspecting associates. Last year Ann showed up at her sister's beginner Spanish class and started to speak flawless Spanish. On another occasion, Amy took her twin's place at ballet rehearsal just before a performance and stumbled around like the unschooled dancer she is. "We can be really cruel," Ann said with pride. "The more outlandish the stunt, the better."

In recent years, some of the nation's most sober-minded corporations have dabbled in April 1 foolery. In 1998, Burger King convinced thousands that it had come out with a new left-handed whopper. Two years earlier, Taco Bell made an announcement that it had purchased the sacred Liberty Bell from the federal government and renamed it you know what. The hoax sparked a furor among liberty-loving Americans, prompting the company to donate $50,000 toward the bell's preservation.

One of the more visually rewarding local pranks dates from the 1930's and involved the violinist Joe Venuti, who called every known tuba player, asked them to show up for a paying gig and then watched as dozens of musicians lugging large piles of brass gathered near the address.

Although its provenance is appropriately murky, April Fools' Day is thought to have originated in 16th-century France, around the time Pope Gregory XIII rejiggered the Christian calendar and shifted New Year's Day to January 1 from April 1. It understandably took a while for the news to spread, and some simply refused to believe it. What to call those stalwarts who continued celebrating New Year's on April 1? "April fools," so the story goes.

In modern times, this celebration of lies and treachery has become entrenched in much of the world, although Europeans, especially the British, are more fervid pranksters than Americans, says Alex Boese, a self-described hoaxpert at the Museum of Hoaxes in San Diego. Mr. Boese, whose museum exists largely in cyberspace but who has written extensively about games people play, said there was really only one rule: If you keep the joke going too long, you become the fool.

Scientists who have studied the hoaxing habits of Americans say the proclivity to trick and embarrass a loved one or colleague often starts early in life. If said studies actually existed - thankfully, they do not - Jennifer May would probably be Exhibit A. When she was a guileless child, an April 1 morn might involve being doused by a cup of water suspended over her bedroom door or getting an earful of peanut butter after reaching for a ringing telephone that carried the goo on its earpiece (as well as the voice of her father in stitches.)

Ms. May, now an adult living in Brooklyn, has learned well. In recent years she has secretly moved her fianc's car so he thought it had been stolen, and she has placed exploding Snaps under her roommate's toilet seat. (The unfortunate aftermath of that stunt is too tasteless to repeat.)

Some time this morning, a travel agent will call Ms. May's fianc and announce that the couple's honeymoon cruise to the Greek Isles has been canceled for the second time in recent weeks. "I'm usually very kind and generous," Ms. May said. "It's just this one day that my evil side comes out."

Anecdotal evidence reveals that workplace pranks are far more elaborate and mortifying than those unleashed at home. Just ask Steve Wyatt, an associate creative director at Kenneth Cole who received scores of odd calls last April 1 - some from prospective semen donors looking to collect $500 for a deposit, others from people seeking free Thai massages or cheap luxury rentals.

After a few dozen such calls, Mr. Wyatt and the company's other victims discovered their phone numbers on a series of fake ads on Craig's List, courtesy of some conspiring underlings. "I found it very amusing, but it did get a bit tiresome when I kept getting calls three weeks later," Mr. Wyatt said.

Would-be pranksters beware, however. April Fools' Day-related lawsuits are not uncommon, and lawyers and psychologists say that the damage from a prank gone awry can be lasting and costly. "Some people are fragile and some people aren't; it's important to know the difference," said Dr. Robert R. Butterworth, a psychologist who specializes in trauma and who truly exists. "It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt."

Melissa Jurist, a television researcher, can attest to that. While she was standing transfixed at the copy machine a few years ago, a co-worker placed a clammy chicken foot on her bare shoulder. In an act of pure reflex, she swung around and whacked the man in the face, drawing blood.

"I felt terrible," she said, "but he felt worse."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



Mediachannel.org
March 30, 2005

Rory O'Connor

April Media Fools


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.

A 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.

The 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."

"When I 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!"

Skaggs, 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 facade, 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.

Without Skaggs, 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.

"The media's 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."

More details about all of Skaggs' past work is available on joeyskaggs.com. And for all you Assignment Desk Editor's out there, here's his latest release:

ATTENTION NEWS ASSIGNMENT EDITOR & CALENDAR DESK:

The New York April Fools' Committee is proud to announce:

NEW YORK CITY'S 20th ANNUAL APRIL FOOLS' DAY PARADE The 20th Annual April Fools' Day Parade will march down Fifth Avenue, from 59th Street to Washington Square Park, beginning at 12 noon, Friday, April 1st, 2005. After two decades, New York's most irreverent parade has finally been officially sanctioned by the City of New York. Also a first, the parade will be broadcast live from 12 noon to 3 p.m. on Time Warner Cable channel 25. The New York April Fools' Committee thanks the Mayor, the city, all our sponsors and participants over the years for their support.

The New York April Fools' Day Parade was created in 1986 to remedy a glaring omission in the long list of New York's annual ethnic and holiday parades. These events fail to recognize the importance of April 1st, the day designated to commemorate the perennial folly of mankind. In an attempt to bridge that gap and bring people back in touch with their inherent foolishness, the parade annually crowns a King of Fools from the parading look-alikes.

This year's parade, "Divided We Stand", will memorialize the efforts made by people around the world to maintain their power, whether political, religious or personal, at the cost of the greater common good. The Parade Grand Marshall will be Ex CBS Anchor, Dan Rather. The theme song "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" will be sung by President George W. Bush. The public is encouraged to participate, in or out of costume, with or without floats, and may join the procession at any point along the parade route. Large float entries must be at 59th Street and 5th Avenue no later than 11:30 a.m.

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.

Marching celebrity look-alike fools will include: Donald Trump handing out pink slips while wearing one; Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger shouting "girlie man!"; Ex New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey announcing "I am a gay American"; Sponge Bob screaming "I am not gay!"; Jimmy Swaggert looking to kills gays if they look at him romantically; Bill O'Reilly looking for lust; Anna Nicole Smith looking for money; Attorney General Alberto Gonzales looking for someone to torture; Bill Burkett handing out forged documents to any reporter who will take them; Jeff Gannon, White House pseudo-reporter, handing out fake IDs; Zell Miller ranting "Dissent is treason!"; Howard Dean just ranting; Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps toasting the crowd again and again; Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi looking for the Halloween Parade; and Ann Coulter being Ann Coulter.

There will be a party with live music, entertainment and food concessions at the end of the parade in Washington Square Park. Revelers can visit the Ukrainian Home Cooking booth featuring the famous Dioxin Borscht served by Ukraine's Ex Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych; a Social Security Casino concession; and a Steroid Sampling booth manned by Baseball players Jose Conseco, Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. Mel Gibson will also be on hand to man his Crucifix Photo-Op concession featuring a ten foot cross with a portrait portal. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will be collecting scrap metal donations for his Soldiers Vehicle Rearmament Program. And, Harvard President Lawrence Summers will oversee an innate intrinsic gender aptitude research booth featuring Condoleeza Rice and Karl Rove naked as test peek-a-boo science of sex comparison subjects. For $5.00, which will help to support next year's parade, the public will be allowed to seek essential differences by asking one question each. Also, Kofi Annan will host a U.N. Food for Oil concession stand. Generous funding for this parade is provided by Pfizer and Merck who will distribute free Celebrex and Vioxx. The King or Queen of Fools will be chosen based on the loudest cheers of the crowd at Washington Square Park. The winner will reign through March 31, 2006.

For information contact: Joey Skaggs, Committee Chair, at 212-254-7878, 135 Sullivan Street, Suite 24, New York, New York 10012



ABCNews.com
March 29, 2005

By Buck Wolf

The Boy Who Cried 'Fool'

Joey Skaggs Is Organizing New York's April Fools' Day Parade ... And This Time He Really Means It


Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 20 times, and your name might be Joey Skaggs.

You may know Joey Skaggs as the proprietor of the world's first bordello for dogs or the inventor of a balding remedy that involves transplanting hair from cadavers onto the heads of exceedingly desperate men.

Then again, you may remember Joey Skaggs as the first man to windsurf from Hawaii to California.

In reality, Skaggs is none of those things. That's just some of the ways he's been identified in news reports over the past 40 years highlights from his career as a media hoax artist, a life's work devoted to showing just how gullible the press can be.

Just after the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Skaggs convinced CNN that he was head of "The Solomon Project," a mission by a computer scientist at New York University to replace juries with computer software that would determine a criminal defendant's guilt or innocence. Guess what he told CNN? The software found O.J. guilty.

Another time, Skaggs convinced "Good Morning America" that he was leader of "The Fat Squad," a group of former U.S. Marines who would help you lose weight by physically restraining you from eating.

Now, it's time once again for Skaggs' longest-running gag New York City's annual April Fools' Day Parade. Every year, Skaggs sends out thousands of press releases promising a star-studded parade down Fifth Avenue. But the only fools who ever show up are reporters and camera crews. To Skaggs and his buddies, it's a joke that never gets old.

Last year, the parade impresario promised an April Fools' gala march of celebrity lookalikes, including Paris Hilton handing out free sex videos, Rush Limbaugh dispensing prescription pain killers and Michael Jackson riding the Giant Bed Float, where parents can hand off their kids to ride down Fifth Avenue. Now, it's time for the 20th annual April Fools' Day Parade, and this time Skaggs is promising something completely different. This year, he says, there really will be a parade.

Yeah, sure, Joey! Would anyone in their right mind trust this guy? Anyone, I mean, besides me?

Indeed, let it be known, I am going to this year's April Fools' Day Parade. I spoke with Skaggs several times this week, and I am now a believer. Of course, I just may be his next sucker. We'll soon find out.

"Buck, I know it's hard to believe me," Skaggs said. "Any journalist worth his or her salt wouldn't trust me. But mark my words on my honor as a prankster this time, it's going to happen. New York will have what it always deserved an April Fools' Day Parade."

It all seems so crazy. After 20 years of organizing New York's most infamous annual nonevent, why would Skaggs actually follow through this year with a real parade? I spent about a half-hour on the phone cross-examining him.

"Don't make me go out on a limb, Joey, and then make me look like an idiot," I said.

"Buck, this is really happening this year. I'm making calls. I've got commitments," he said. And then, like a school kid trying to get out of a homework assignment, he added, "I'm going to make every effort to be there."

With Skaggs, there's really no way to be sure of anything even when you're paying the guy a compliment.

When "Entertainment Tonight" interviewed Skaggs in 1988 for a segment about media hoaxers, Skaggs hoaxed them by sending an impostor for an on-air sit-down with host Mary Hart.

"How could I resist?" Skaggs later told The Associated Press. "I mean, who did they think they were dealing with?"

Over the years, I've written several stories about Skaggs and we've become friendly. Two years ago, he lent me one of his bizarre fish tanks a $5,000 "Fish Condominium," which he was selling through the Neiman Marcus catalog for an event to celebrate the publication of the "Wolf Files" book.

Like everything else about Skaggs, the fish tank has to be seen to be believed. It's larger than many New York City apartments and the fancy decor would impress Paris Hilton, not that that's necessarily a compliment.

Would Skaggs lie to me? Perhaps. The press release for this year's April Fools' Day Parade is just as outlandish as those in the past, promising, among other things, another army of celebrity lookalikes, including Donald Trump handing out pink slips while wearing one, and a Mud Wrestling float featuring Michael Moore, who will take on all challengers.

"It's time to make this thing a reality," Skaggs said. "We're pulling something together that you definitely don't want to miss. Be there."

Skaggs was so emphatic, I just had to believe him. For 40 years, he's been showing just how gullible news reporters can be. I may just prove him right once again, but now, our friendship is on the line.

A few months ago, Joey and I got together. I returned the fish tank to him and I did something a journalist rarely does I picked up the dinner check. Maybe it was only a plate of spaghetti, but take this as a warning, Joey: If I'm buying your lies, I'm certainly not buying you dinner. And yes, that's a threat.

So while I can still enjoy it, here's a look back at some of Joey Skaggs' greatest hoaxes.

1. The Miracle Roach Hormone Cure
Remember Kafka's "Metamorphosis"? Skaggs emerged in 1981 as Dr. Josef Gregor, an entomologist who extolled the virtue of consuming cockroach hormones as a cure for colds, acne, anemia and menstrual cramps. WNBC-TV's "Live at Five" featured an interview with the doctor, who claimed to have graduated from the University of Bogota in Colombia. Skaggs says no one checked his credentials. The newscasters only seemed to become suspicious when Skaggs played his organization's theme song "La Cucaracha."

2. Celebrity Sperm Auction
Attention ladies: Interested in "certified and authenticated rock star sperm"? Posing as Giuseppe Scagolli in 1976, Skaggs appealed to women who wanted children with sperm provided by the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. When "Scagolli" claimed his sperm bank had been robbed, several wire services and Ms. magazine picked up the story.

3. The Dog Bordello
Finally, a place for frustrated pooches a cathouse for dogs! Skaggs planted an ad in New York's Village Voice newspaper in 1976 that promised "a savory selection of hot bitches" for your sexually deprived mutt, with the warning: "dogs only." Skaggs posed as a dog pimp, promising every Rover satisfaction for only $50. The media lapped it up, and the story hit all the wire services and local cable shows. Even ABC's New York affiliate covered the event.

4. Gypsy Moth Anti-Defamation League
In a 1982 article in The New York Time, Jo-Jo the Gypsy protested the political incorrectness of the term "gypsy moth" at a time when the little critters were devastating trees in the Northeast. Jo-Jo, another Skaggs incarnation, railed against the injustice of associating the pesky moths with Gypsies, a downtrodden minority that has long suffered from discrimination. Jo-Jo suggested the varmints should be called "Hitler Moths." The New York Post gleefully reported the esteemed newspaper's mistake in an article headlined "Times Falls for the Old Switcheroo."

5. Hair Replacement From the Dead
Hair Today Ltd. gleaned a substantial amount of air time and ink in 1990 as a firm specializing in a cure of baldness through hair transplants from the dead, much the way doctors would transplant a kidney. Skaggs said the ideal recipients would be salesmen or TV news anchors who needed to "look their best" and could afford the $3,500 price tag. The Boston Globe was among the news organizations fooled on this one.

6. The Fat Squad
Skaggs assumed the role of Joe Bones, a former Marine Corps drill sergeant determined to wipe out obesity. He told ABC's "Good Morning America" in 1986 that for "$300 a day plus expenses" his commandos would disarm any dieter who tried to sneak a cookie before bedtime. Host David Hartman later told the press: "We were had, in spades." The Philadelphia Inquirer was also duped.

7. The Final Curtain
Talk about the art of dying: What if cemeteries could be turned into theme parks for conceptual artists who want to go out in style, like Kim Markegard, who wanted her headstone to be a jukebox, so that not-so-well-wishers could dance on her grave. Markegard, of course, was a product of Skaggs' imagination. In 2000, he whipped up "The Final Curtain," an alternative cemetery. Among the customers who supposedly purchased plots were writer Julia Solis, who wanted her body fat rendered into fuel for an eternal flame.

Skaggs conned some 39 newspapers, six TV stations and 10 magazines into believing in The Final Curtain, including the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press. Two European TV crews inquired about shooting a documentary, and a student at the University of Chicago asked to use The Final Curtain as the basis of her graduate thesis.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.



The Independent
March 13, 2005

By Mark Borkowski

Confidence tricks

In the Sixties he turned hoaxing from stunt into fine art, and that's why Joey Skaggs is Mark Borkowski's mentor


Anyone who has delusions of influencing the media ought to see the recently released movie The Yes Men, an object lesson in how to turn pranksterism into political action.

It is the work of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, a pair of anti-corporate film-makers-cum-political activists who set up a website posing as the World Trade Organization. Despite it being an obvious spoof, they were soon invited by corporate types to speak at trade conferences all over the world. There they expounded what they felt were clearly satirical points of view (using slavery as an economic model, selling votes to influence elections, etc), only to find them welcomed as progressive ideas in the world of global commerce and trade.

It is a good film, making a good point. But there's nothing as effective in it as the stunt that the Yes Men pulled last December on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster in India. Bichlbaum and Bonanno had earlier set up a bogus website for Dow Chemical, the US company that took over Union Carbide, the plant's owners at the time of the catastrophe that has killed 20,000 in the 20 years since it happened, and someone at the BBC logged on in the hope of an interview. In a magnificent piece of effrontery, Bichlbaum went on air posing as a Dow spokesman and announced that, after 20 years of evasion and denial, Dow had finally accepted full responsibility for the disaster and would pay 12bn in compensation. What was brilliant about this was not the stunt itself, which was criticised for giving false hope to the victims' families (albeit for only two hours, until Dow woke up to the hoax), but its effect - forcing Dow to retract its apology and withdraw the bogus compensation offer.

In an age of cheap PR stunts, the Yes Men are following in the distinguished footsteps of one of my mentors. Joey Skaggs' distinguished career of anarchic stunts demonstrates the difference between a prankster and a publicist, while at the same time making the prank an art work. What Skaggs does is manipulate the media in order to highlight hypocrisy. As a result, much of the media, who are not known for enjoying jokes at their own expense, dislike him. Crucially, Skaggs does not work for anyone but himself. He has no unseen corporate clients lurking in the background, and he rarely profits from his stunts (although he has made a tidy living from his "fish condos": designer apartments for guppies that started as a joke and ended up being must-have gifts for yuppies - the very people who were the butt of the joke).

Skaggs considers himself to be a performance artist, and cites as his influences the Surrealists and Absurdists of an earlier era. While others use publicity to sell us stuff, he's a refreshing throwback to the more innocent age of men such as P T Barnum and Jim Moran.

A proper prankster (such as Skaggs or the Yes Men) picks deserving victims and makes them look gullible or foolish, making us laugh while making his point. Skaggs is a master of this form of hoax because he always has a point to make and he's never trying to sell us anything - because he's not looking for profit.

I first made contact with him when I was researching my book (Improperganda - The Art of the Publicity Stunt), but he made his name long before that. Skaggs is a product of the Sixties counter-culture, and that is what separates him from his acolytes today. America in the Sixties was an era of anti-Establishment protest, and it's in that spirit that Skaggs staged - and still stages - his stunts.

The first was 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 faade, and the fallibility of the public's blind acceptance of the media, so he used the media as his medium.

One of his best stunts was a 1976 newspaper ad announcing the opening of a brothel for dogs ("A cat house for dogs featuring a savory selection of hot bitches"), followed by a photo-opportunity for the media. One TV company was nominated for an Emmy for its coverage of an event that was not only a figment of Skaggs' brilliant imagination, but proof of how easy it was to manipulate the media with two of their favourite subjects - sex and animals. Only when Skaggs faced prosecution did he expose the idea as a "conceptual performance piece".

Other stunts by Skaggs to fool the press included the opening of a "Celebrity Sperm Bank", where Bob Dylan and The Beatles had allegedly left deposits - again satirising the media's obsessions with sex and medical advances. And a bogus laboratory where Dr Josef Gregor (alias Skaggs) had bred a strain of cockroaches that produced hormones that would cure all known ailments and protect humans from radiation. The press, in its frenzy to report the new miracle drug, failed to note that the doctor's name was strangely similar to the character in Kafka's The Metamorphosis who turned from a human into a giant insect.

My favourite was when Skaggs appeared on national TV as "Joe Bones" to launch his "Fat Squad" - $300-a-day commandos who would shadow dieters throughout their day to prevent them snacking - in a send-up of America's obsession with obesity and diets. Almost as good was when he posed as the president of a Korean organisation called Kea So Joo, sending letters to dog shelters asking for any unwanted canines to be sent to him for food, causing predictable outrage in the media, much of it with racist overtones. Perhaps none of the writers were Korean, or they would have smelt a rat from the organisation's name - it means "Dog Meat Soup with Alcohol" in Korean.

Perhaps Skaggs is my greatest contemporary muse. Without him 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. Hang on... I think I know just the man to do it. Now, where did I put Joey's phone number?

2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.



MacDirectory
Spring, 2003


Interview By Erez Reuveni

Art View: Joey Skaggs, Media Satirist



Joey Skaggs is a both a professional artist and a self-proclaimed socio-political activist. Fusing his two professions together, Skaggs has been using his artistry to prank media outlets as renowned as the Associated Press and the New York Times for nearly thirty years.

MacDirectory recently spoke with Mr. Skaggs regarding his media-hoaxing, contemporary society, and the future of the media.

MD: How did you get into being a "media artist," hoaxing media outlets in order to demonstrate the ridiculous sanctimony much of the media is guilty of practicing?

JS: I've always been a fine artist. I graduated from the High School of Art & Design and have a BFA from the School of Visual Arts, both in New York City. I was primarily a painter, although I was classically trained in a wide spectrum of mediums. I realized early on that the business of art was the antithesis to the creative process and I decided to circumvent the traditional art market. There were many social issues that offended me and provoked a burning passion in me to speak out. Civil rights, the war in Vietnam, culture intolerance, the environment, abuses of power... I came of age in the sixties. I was young and audacious. So I created a way to express my concerns outside of the establishment. My art became very public. I didn't want or need anyone's permission.

In 1966, I built a crucifix and dragged it down the street on four consecutive Easters to protest man's inhumanity to man and to comment on the hypocrisy of the church. In 1968 I organized the Hippie Bus Tour to Queens as a satirical cultural exchange tour and I attempted to burn down a Vietnamese Village Nativity I erected in Central Park to protest the war in Vietnam. In 1969 I hung a Fifty Foot Brassiere on the US Treasury Building to poke fun at leering Wall Street workers and placed grotesque Statues of Liberty in Astor Place in the East Village as a war protest.

These were all confrontational public happenings. How the media interpreted (they got it wrong), editorialized (they condescended) and criticized (they attacked) these performances inspired me to actually use the media more directly, to make my point. If government and big business could access the media to get their messages out, I figured I could too. The media became not just a vehicle to get attention about an event, but a medium in itself, to be shaped and molded and instilled with my social-political agenda. I created hoaxes. I confronted and challenged the majority opinion. I attacked, humiliated, and criticized the voice of the corporate mainstream media.

Of course, I paid the price for doing so. I was physically attacked, summonsed, and arrested. My message was distorted by the media establishment in their attempt to defend everything they represent -- which was everything I was opposed to.

MD: In this age of misinformation and propaganda, so many people, average joes and media folk alike, just take whatever they hear as the gospel. Why do you think so much of the media is beholden to a wolfish pack mentality?

JS: The majority of the people are already "believers." They've already bought into the system. The approved "life passage" has certain requirements. You go to school. You stay out of trouble. You get a job. You get married. You have a family. You pay taxes. You pray to the right god. You get old (if you're lucky). And you die. We've been indoctrinated to accept this. Any deviation is looked upon as a perversion, is feared, and is usually a target of hatred and prejudice. We function in a pack mentality. This is our tribe. And this is how we are exploited -- sold a bill of goods and a household of products.

So the fact that the media all jump on a story in a similar fashion is not surprising. The opposite, when a voice cuts through to say something different or original, is surprising.

MD: What are your thoughts on the concept of the media being the message?

JS: The media is not just the message. The media is a massage. We're constantly being stroked, manipulated, adjusted, realigned, and maneuvered.

MD: I'm partial to your Gypsies Against Stereotypical Propaganda bit and your recent Final Curtain hoax. Do you have a favorite media hoax you're particularly pleased with, either because of its logistics or its implied meaning?

JS: I look at past work as completed, although I'm pleased that each of the pieces seems to have a life of its own and that the issues are still relevant. The Celebrity Sperm Bank, the Cat House for Dogs, the Fat Squad, Sexonix, Portofess, the Solomon Project... But my favorite work is always my next piece.

MD: What are your thoughts on the preponderance of internet news sources and sites? How has the advent of the digital/internet age changed the dissemination of information? Are more sources necessarily better? How does the nonchalant internet purveyor know who to trust?

JS: Technology and consciousness are evolutionary and co-dependant. Change is inevitable. Where it leads will always be a great curiosity. As far as trust goes, some people can't even trust their own mothers. Do you trust your momma? Does she have a Web site? What's the world coming to?

MD: How do you see the amorphous blob known as the "media" evolving in the years ahead? More super-mergers ala AOLTimeWarner? More independent news sources like the one that blew up the Trent Lott story? More irresponsible feeding frenzies?

JS: I predict a revolution in media delivery. After years of people sitting on their butts in front one screen or another, looking at or reading about other people's lives and events, a multi-national corporation connected to a global political party manipulates everyone into believing that information derived this way is unhealthy. They, the government/church/corporation, give out a daily news pill. Everything you want or need to know, you ingest and digest. As a result, you buy the products, share the beliefs, and vote the right way. It's infinitely more convenient. And it barely affects your weight, bowel movements or blood pressure. In addition, it gives your sex life a boost. All the current methods of information delivery become archaic and pedestrian. The environment is saved, crime becomes obsolete, we live longer, and we all go to heaven.

MD: If you were king of the world for a day, what would you do beyond media hoaxing to get the message out that so many Americans are pawns beholden to a constant barrage of nonsensical thought-control?

JS: King of the world wouldn't be enough. I'd have to be god of the universe (the Wizard of Oz would suffice). And in that case, I'd let everyone know that I didn't exist and tell them not to believe in me. But somehow, I know they would want to believe in me anyway. Which is to say, this is the way it is. Not much is going to change.

Mr. Skaggs' web site can be viewed at www.joeyskaggs.com, and his upcoming smash bestseller, "Flush the Toilet," will be published this summer.



McSweeney's, Volume #8
August, 2002


By Paul L. Maliszewski

Hoaxes Without End

An interview with Joey Skaggs, about making up news



On April 13, 1844, The New York Sun published a special edition, called The Extra Sun, on the strength of a front-page story announcing that a hot-air balloon had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean. With no fewer than eight exclamation points and a series of bold headlines, subheads, and kickers that filled one-third of the column, the Sun trumpeted its astounding news. The balloon had crossed the Atlantic in three days! The "Flying Machine!!!" had just arrived and landed in Charleston, South Carolina. The article promised "full particulars of the voyage!!!" The article, as it happens, was fictional. It was written by Edgar Allan Poe and published knowingly by the Sun. New York newspapers were far more numerous then and competition for readers was fierce, and so Poe's story was a sure-fire way for the Sun's editors to boost their circulation. They were right; the paper sold 50,000 copies of the special edition. Poe was amazed and, even stranger for him, genuinely overjoyed at the enthusiasm that greeted his story. He wrote:

"On the morning (Saturday) of its announcement, the whole square surrounding the Sun building was literally besieged, blocked up--ingress and egress being alike impossible, for a period soon after sunrise until about two o'clock p.m.[...] I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as the first copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the news-boys, who made a profitable speculation."

Today, Poe's fictional news article appears in most of the major collections of his writing, as a story called "The Balloon-Hoax." His story came to mind as I was preparing to interview Joey Skaggs, an artist who has, since 1976, made up stories that are the contemporary equivalent of Poe's and managed to get them published in newspapers and on the Internet and broadcast on television and the radio, all without editors and reporters suspecting a thing. Most recently Skaggs created The Final Curtain, a fake company and its requisite Web site, promising to do for cemeteries what Walt Disney did for theme parks, and do so tastefully. The company got quite a bit of attention in the media before Skaggs revealed it as his latest hoax. Thinking about Skaggs and Poe, I wondered about the 50,000 people who bought that issue of Sun. Were they just hoodwinked? Was it that simple? Or did they also come away with a story, albeit fictional, about progress, human achievement, and risky adventures, all of which they happened to want to believe in? And could the same be said for those of us fooled by a Skaggs hoax today, or tomorrow?

Q. Now that you've revealed the Final Curtain, I'd like you to talk about some of the logistical nitty-gritty that goes into one of your productions.

A. The Final Curtain took about two years of work from when I first started putting it together to when I released the expose. Having come up with the concept to satirize the funeral industry, I decided to create a bogus company and Web site to promote the concept. I wanted to use the Internet because while fact and fiction are so easily manipulated and blurred, it has also become an ubiquitous and supposedly reliable source for information. It gave us an instantaneous and constant presence, with the illusion of having a history. I registered a domain name and put together a team of volunteers. In this case over fifty people helped perpetrate the hoax--businesspeople, writers, architects, Web designers, programmers, ISP providers, and the artists who provided concepts and sketches for their monuments.

We created the Final Curtain Web site complete with architectural renderings, a development proposal, biographies for the management team, information about investment opportunities and the time-share program for the deceased, a monument gallery of iconoclastic and satirical grave sites and urns, and a tour of the memorial theme park.

To be successful, this project had to appear completely real. I needed a mailing address, letterhead, telephone business listing, and a staff. One volunteer agreed to let me use his home/office address in New Jersey and we installed a telephone line under the name of Investors Real Estate Development d.b.a. the Final Curtain.

All calls and mail were forwarded to my New York City studio. Our Web master created e-mail addresses for all the staff members which were also routed to me. They were real people, but since none had the time to deal with the day-to-day correspondence once the piece took off, I played all the roles.

Then I placed ads in twenty alternative newspapers around the country. The ad read, "Death got you down? At last an alternative! www.finalcurtain.com."

Q. What initial reactions did you get from the ads?

A. As soon as the ads came out, the hits to the site spiked into the tens of thousands per day for several weeks. However, only a few people responded directly.

Q. Then what happened?

A. I let the Final Curtain percolate. Over the next six months, we added artists' submissions to the Monument Gallery. This helped it look as if it had caught on and that more people were becoming involved.

When I felt the site was sufficiently populated with creative, emotionally poignant monuments, I launched a major PR campaign announcing the concept and soliciting artists' monuments for a scholarship program. The winners would receive free 10' x 10' plots for their memorials or urns at one of our soon-to-be-created memorial theme parks.

Q. Satire always seems to require at least some of the audience to completely miss what's funny and accept it as real. Were these very serious, earnest submissions from artists who took the Web site at face value?

A. The responses I got seemed genuinely sincere. Some artists embraced the concept and were happy to participate. Others saw it as a business opportunity. For example, one artist who did tombstone engraving for people and pets wanted to put her work up in the gallery as a way to get more work through the Final Curtain.

Q. So next the Final Curtain starts to get early attention from the media.

A. The media response kept me extremely busy granting interviews. I played various staff members and appeared on radio shows, in newspapers and magazines, on the Internet, and on TV shows. Thankfully no one asked me to come in to the studio.

After an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the legal challenges began. A lawyer for Uncle Milton Industries Inc., owner of the registered trademark "Ant Farm" sent a formal complaint to both the writer at the Los Angeles Times and our company claiming trademark infringement because one artist's monument emulated an ant farm.

It pays to have a pro bono lawyer friend with a sense of humor. In response we changed the language on the site to "ant habitat," and all was well with the world again. But I couldn't pass up the opportunity to stir up a little more trouble. I sent a second press release out about the ant farm controversy to keep the Final Curtain in the news.

Q. I like how the fact that Uncle Milton's attorneys took the Final Curtain seriously can become justification for journalists just hearing about the Final Curtain to take it seriously, too.

A. When something seemingly adverse happens, I use it as an opportunity. Controversies help to distract reporters from questioning the original premise.

Q. Then what happened?

A. Months went by and I maintained nine-to-five business hours, pretending I worked in a real office. I handled a flood of interviews by phone and e-mail. I had an answering machine with a secretary's voice on the message, so I could occasionally leave "the office."

I tape recorded and logged all the calls, and kept track of the articles and stories through print and electronic clipping services. I had to keep everything going long enough for numerous magazines, with very long lead times, to publish their stories.

Q. In order to create a fictional business you had to behave like an actual business. You kept business hours, you held meetings with your volunteers, you did all those standard business things. It's as if some semblance of reality can't be imitated accurately without recreating reality completely. Running a business that's supposed to appear real could even be harder than running a real business.

A. When I create a false reality, I always try to create a plausible structure to help convince people.

Q. When and why did you decide to reveal the hoax?

After many months of running this non-existent company I was satisfied with the success of the piece. I composed and mailed an expose press release. I canceled the auxiliary telephone line and mounted a disclaimer on the Final Curtain Web site. But releasing an expose doesn't mean the piece is over. Since a majority of the media that had fallen for it chose not to do a follow-up and never revealed it was a hoax, many people weren't exposed to the truth. Consequently some serious inquiries continued to come in. Even with a disclaimer on the Web site, I receive letters of inquiry, commentary, and offers.

Q. As you watch the news or read newspapers, what do you notice about journalism that you then take into account in your hoaxes? Are there types of stories reporters tend to go for that you then try to replicate?

A. Sometimes it's 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. 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.

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.

Q. Sensationalism is something that people regularly accuse some journalists of. What must be alluring about your hoaxes is that you present journalists with a sensational story. That is, they don't need to cover the cathouse for dogs or the cockroach vitamin pill in sensational ways. They're already sensational. Your hoaxes allow them to be thoughtful, objective journalists while covering something that's completely outrageous.

A. I'm willing to play the buffoon or the wacko and let them laugh at my expense, knowing I'll have the last laugh.

Q. How did you get started doing this?

A. I loved painting and sculpting, but realized how difficult it was for a young artist to be taken seriously by the art establishment. Also, I was impatient. So I began doing confrontational, iconoclastic performances, bringing my artwork into the public arena, like the Easter Sunday Crucifixion in 1966, which started when I dragged a 200-pound ten-foot-tall sculpture depicting a decayed figure on a cross into Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side.

These were the early stages of using the news media as an integral part of my work. These performances usually ended up badly for me and anyone associated with me. They were not humorous. I was scorned, chased, and arrested. But I learned first-hand how the news media operates by watching how they interpreted, changed, and misrepresented my intentions.

Q. How did the news media report on those early projects?

A. As a news story, I'm just a subject, not a person. My early performances were provocative, so I was stereotypically portrayed as a counter-cultural figure by the mainstream media. Not much has changed.

Q. Then the media became much more integral to your work.

A. I began to experiment using the media as my medium rather than just a vehicle to report on my performances. I learned more complex ways to manipulate the manipulators, to bring attention to issues about which I felt passionate. My performances became, rather than simple political or social statements, more sophisticated theatrical productions, like the Vietnamese Nativity in 1968, where I constructed a life-sized Vietnamese village in Central Park on Christmas Day and had actors representing American soldiers with weapons attack and destroy it.

I combined advertising art and public relations techniques with theater, film-making, set design, research, writing, character development, acting, photography, and of course, sculpting and painting. And I added hoaxing to my repertoire, where I would fool the media into believing total fabrications. I called these my plausible but non-existent realities. I was inspired by the need to be cunning enough to fool intelligent journalists, while leaving clues and challenging them to catch me. I'd given up the control a painter might have, but I was dealing with issues, with irony, and with worldwide media attention. It was no longer necessary to have a gallery in order to be seen.

Q. You've written that when reality as reported on the news gets as strange as it sometimes is, "pranks are needed more than ever to jolt us into reexamining our values." What values and what sort of reexamination do you have in mind?

The issues of my performances vary, but most of the questions buried in the work remain the same: What do we believe? Why do we believe it? This is true whether we're talking about questioning the authority of the media or questioning deeper personal beliefs, such as political, religious, moral, or ethical concerns.

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.

Q. What sort of reexamination do you have in mind for the Final Curtain?

A. The theme is life and death. It's about as heavy as you can get or as light as you can try to make it. Hopefully, the Final Curtain has inspired people to think about how they respond to the death of a loved one. I tried to create an inspirational framework around an absurd premise to jumpstart the process. As it turns out, the premise of a cemetery theme park mall with a time-share program for the deceased may not be that absurd after all. Many people thought it was a great idea.

Q. How reliant are the reporters who write about the Final Curtain on the press releases you feed them?

A. Most reporters who come to me get their stories directly from press releases. Very few do what one would consider to be their professional duty. I count on this to a degree.

If I'm successful in fooling a wire service, I don't really have to do anything else to promote the story, because the media will feed off of itself. They all assume the original author did his or her homework.

The Final Curtain Web site contained a lot of information including contacts for the staff. So even if a journalist considered the concept over-the-top, there were people to talk with to get verification. Some journalists did call, which allowed me to have fun elaborating on the concept in order to convince them. Most did not question the premise but would focus on getting clever material for their stories. They asked about the artists' submissions. So I made up answers I thought they'd like.

Q. What sort of questions did reporters ask you?

A. The questions were quite typical: Where did the idea come from? When and where will the first theme park open? Tell us about some of the artists and their concepts. Is there anyone famous? How much will it cost to be buried there?

Q. Did any reporter want to pry into the story a bit?

A few journalists dug deeper. Some had questions about the backers and potential investors. But I'd answer probing questions with, "I'm sorry but what you are asking is proprietary in nature and I'm not at liberty to disclose this information." Very few continued to pry after that.

Also, I could always try to manipulate the conversation and feed them other aspects I thought might interest them. I'd tell them we were being besieged by the public, that we were really filling important needs. I'd speak of economic development for the areas in which we planned to build. If it was a radio interview, I knew they wouldn't spend much time. If it was a print journalist I'd ad-lib as long as they wanted. But it was relatively easy to answer their questions and keep them engaged.

Q. Did any reporters contact you, ask a few questions, and then not run a story?

A. A journalist from the Bergen County Record, in New Jersey, called several times. Each time he called he tried to dig deeper. Finally he called to say his editor was not satisfied with the information, and he needed more. I told him I could understand the editor's hesitancy since we had not yet broken ground on the first park. And since I couldn't tell him exactly where the first park would open, "for fear that the information would drive up prices of surrounding properties," I suggested he wait until we announced a groundbreaking. He sounded disappointed that his editor was holding him back, but agreed that maybe it was best he wait.

His calls were particularly challenging. The Final Curtain office was not far from his office. I feared he'd take a short trip to our headquarters only to find it was a private home. But he never brought up the subject of visiting us and he never wrote the story.

Q. Before you revealed the hoax, The Boston Herald, Mother Jones, National Public Radio, and many others reported on the Final Curtain. Have any of those organizations run retractions or stories explaining the hoax?

A. Disappointingly no. Yahoo Internet Life, Mother Jones, NPR, Fox TV, Associated Press, Flash News, and the New York Daily News, etc.--none of them ran retractions. Only The Boston Herald ran a retraction, but it was a put-down. And they were joined by the Boston Globe, which hadn't fallen for it. But then, I'd hoaxed both repeatedly.

Follow-up stories by those who have been fooled are rare. When it does happen, it isn't necessarily an explanation, apology, or examination of the issues brought forth by the hoax. They don't want to give the story any more attention for fear of further embarrassment. They don't want the public to question their credibility as an investigative news source.

Q. So your hoaxes typically get more coverage than your subsequent revelation that they are hoaxes?

A. The news media mostly choose to focus on the aspects of the story that concern their having been fooled, not the issues brought forth in the hoax. So the follow-up story is usually an admission that they "among many other journalists" were fooled by a hoaxer. They try not to mention my name. And if they do, they usually put me down. Not that I expect them to praise me.

Q. You ever have any close calls with reporters almost discovering you hiding behind their story?

A. I'm sure, well, at least hopeful that there have been suspicious journalists who, thinking the story was bogus, decided it wasn't worth their time to investigate and let it go. But my experience has shown me that most journalists don't want to screw up a good story with reality, and they will talk themselves out of questioning the story to death.

I remember the first time I fooled UPI, this was with my Cockroach Vitamin Cure Hoax. When asked by another journalist for a statement, a UPI senior editor said, "The information was correct at the time." I never forgot that. That comment was the excuse he used to justify their incompetence. Incidentally, I've fooled UPI numerous times since.

Q. Has the Final Curtain received any media attention since, as the UPI editor would have it, the information about it now appears to be incorrect?

A. Even though the site has an expose announcement on the home page, the site still receives thousands of hits from all over the world everyday. And the servers those hits are coming from keep changing. For example, last week I started getting hits from Poland. So apparently, someone somewhere is writing about it.

Also, I'm still getting e-mails from people interested in financing or mounting their memorial, or offering planned giving opportunities. Obviously people don't read very carefully. If I removed the hoax disclaimer, the hoax would continue on. It would be an interesting test, and I'm tempted to do it.

Q. Your Celebrity Sperm Bank, a plausible but non-existent reality circa 1976, has recently become a plausible, existent Web site that auctions model's eggs to the highest bidder. In "Writing American Fiction," Philip Roth wrote, "The American writer... has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist." As a satirist, do you ever feel you're in a high-stakes race against reality?

A. Sure, but it also reminds me not to get old or culturally stuck, and not to be disappointed when reality beats me to the punch. It's a wonderful challenge. Not just to keep up, but to guess ahead of the crowd.

Q. Do you consider yourself at all gullible?

A. It is the fool who thinks he cannot be fooled. I hook lots of journalists because of this attitude. Especially Europeans who say, "You couldn't get away with that here." I say, "Excuse me, but I have."

But I'm as susceptible as anyone else. At the same time, I'm highly skeptical. It would make life much easier if I could have total faith and not question everything all the time, but I can't do it and I won't do it.

Q. What would you do if a Joey Skaggs impersonator began making hoaxes in your name, in effect adding counterfeit hoaxes to your real body of fake work in much the same way that van Gogh's oeuvre, say, is today swelled by a number of careful fakes?

A. Are you trying to create more trouble for me here? Actually I thought a lot about continuing my work even after I'm dead. So I've been designing hoaxes that can be executed when I'm no longer alive. For example, hoaxes that my friends can drop in the mail. I actually can still continue working, and no one will be the wiser.

Q. So you might create a hoax that's never revealed, that forever remains a plausible but non-existent reality? That would be a fitting memorial for you, to leave behind some complex, undisclosed puzzles, a bunch of hoaxes without any end.

A. It makes the thought of dying a little more amusing.

©2002 All rights reserved.



Quill
Society of Professional Journalists

May, 2002

By Chris Berdik

DUPED! When journalists fall for fake news
Media hoaxes expose gaps in verification processes and remind us that American journalism is built on trust and the freedom to make mistakes.



A few years ago, an outfit called Investors Real Estate Development announced it was planning a cemetery amusement park, featuring gaudy memorials designed by artists, roller coasters, a souvenir shop, and refreshments at "Dante's Grill." It was all on a Web site along with investment information and contacts for both company officials and the tombstone visionaries.

The Associated Press picked up the story in October 1999, as did the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Herald, and a number of smaller papers, magazines, and broadcast news outlets. It was a story about greed, narcissism and sacrilegious profiteering. The funny thing was that we all wanted it to be true.

As it turns out, not a word of it was.

The theme park was the brainchild of Joey Skaggs, a conceptual artist and media hoaxer. The development company was a phony. The company phone line was Skaggs' own, and Skaggs portrayed both the company spokesperson and the marketing director for interviews. The artists who submitted gravesite designs were all his co-conspirators. Fake press releases and advertisements were all the bait Skaggs needed as one journalist after another failed to detect the ruse. I was one of them.

In January 2000, I was the research editor of Mother Jones magazine, and I managed the magazine's fact checkers. One of the pieces to be checked that month was a 150-word bit on the cemetery theme park. It was written by a fellow editor and illustrated with a tombstone concept from the Web site, a bright blue neon sign that proclaimed, "Nick is Dead."

Months later, Skaggs revealed the hoax in a press release. He described the cemetery amusement park as a satire on "the corporate and church sponsored death care industry" taken "to its truly outrageous conclusion."

Besides the listing of duped media outlets, there wasn't much journalism analysis in Skaggs' press release. We at Mother Jones wondered exactly what it meant that we, and so many others, had been fooled in this way. What were the failures of the journalistic system, and how could they be remedied?

Media hoaxes are nothing new. Both Ben Franklin and Edgar Allen Poe wrote satirical yarns and passed them off as news articles. And in the 19th century, frontier newspapers were filled with tall tales of murder and mayhem. It seems that as long as there's been mass media in America, there's been somebody around to monkey with it.

Yet there is something new, as it turns out. In recent years, the public's confidence in and regard for news media has plummeted. The General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, shows that public confidence in the press has been dropping fairly steadily for almost two decades. A recent study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported that 73 percent of Americans say they are more skeptical than ever about news accuracy. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that between 1985 and 1999, the percentage of the public who think the press helps democracy dropped from 54 to 45 percent.

This is how Skaggs described journalists in an interview posted on his Web site: "They are the status quo with capped teeth and hair spray. ... They are the puppet presenters of misinformation, propaganda, lies, deceit and commercialism."
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One thing is certain; getting hoaxed by Skaggs hinted that some introspection was in order.

The first step in understanding media hoaxes is to lay out who is hoaxing whom - and why they are doing it. I believe there are five kinds of hoaxes. The first type of hoax is the fame grab, perpetrated by a member of the public seeking fame or publicity, such as a person who falsely claims heroism or a secret connection to some celebrity. Closely related to the fame grab are moneymaking scams like false corporate press releases created to manipulate the stock market.

I would call the third type of hoax "fake news" -stories, characters and quotes created by journalists who hope to spice up their stories and jumpstart their careers. Then there are jokes by journalists, which typically aren't meant to be believed even when written in a newsy style. April Fools Day stories come to mind.

And finally, there are hoaxes staged by non-journalists to satirize the press or some other segment of society. The stunts Skaggs pulls belong in this last category.

Fame grabbing, scamming, and journalistic fraud are almost universally condemned and followed by a flurry of jeremiads imploring journalists to get back to basics and verify stories. Jokes, when they are clearly marked, are typically passed over with a laugh and a shake of the head.

But satirical hoaxes -nobody seems to know how to react to these.

Journalists, naturally, tend to view such antics with consternation. We've been lied to, and we don't want it to happen again. Rule number one of the ethics code for the Society of Professional Journalists, after all, is "Seek Truth and Report It." So the usual reaction is to examine the day-to-day newsgathering and editing operations in order to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

We had this reaction at Mother Jones. It's a worthwhile process, but it leaves aside some very important questions: What kind of press would never get hoaxed? Is it possible? And would we want that kind of press? I have attempted to add these considerations to the mix. I examine hoaxes as an issue of journalistic credibility, with special attention to reportorial shortcuts, the impact of the Internet, and the role of fact checking. But I also discuss hoaxes in terms of what the news is and what we think it ought to be.
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In his book "Jamming the Media," Gareth Branwyn has a chapter on media hoaxes that begins with a quote from Joey Skaggs: "Get some out-of-state newspaper to run a story on something sight unseen, and then Xerox that story and include it in a second mailing. Journalists see that it has appeared in print and think, therefore, that there's no need to do any further research."

Skaggs' how-to statement is a good description of "pack journalism," where one reporter follows up the work of another reporter without questioning the story's foundation. Pack journalism is often a pseudonym for lazy or sloppy reporting, but to a certain extent it's how mass media works.

Very few news outlets have the resources to investigate every story. Every day, newspapers, broadcast news and online news postings are filled with echoes of stories taken from a comparatively tiny number of sources such as The Associated Press and The New York Times. Thus, a hoax picked up by one of the wire services is almost immediately repeated by media outlets across the country, and it is repetition more than anything else that gives information life.

Gary Hill is the director of investigations and special segments at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis and the chair of the Ethics Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists. "To some extent," said Hill, "we're victims of regarding each other as professionals. ... Skaggs has hit upon the soft underbelly of the press."

Branwyn, whose book is a guide to "do it yourself" media such as zines and low-powered radio stations, puts the idea somewhat differently. Skaggs' hoaxes, he said, show that "the mainstream media is choking on its own exhaust."

Many commentators predict a greater reliance on pack journalism as more media outlets are purchased by giant, publicly held corporations that gut newsroom staff in order to cut costs and increase profits. But reliance on reportorial shortcuts isn't limited to far-flung media empires. Mother Jones, for instance, is run by a nonprofit foundation. The staff is small and most of the articles are written by free-lance journalists. The magazine certainly didn't have the means to send a staff editor across the country to report on a 150-word story about a cemetery theme park.

Alastair Paulin, now the managing editor at Mother Jones and the unfortunate author of the Skaggs piece, believes he would have done some on-the-spot reporting if the planned development hadn't been 3,000 miles from his office. Nevertheless, he admits that this would have had more to do with writing a good story than in unmasking a fraud.

"Maybe I wouldn't have been consciously thinking, 'I need to know if this is real," he said. "But if you can actually do some on-the-ground reporting rather than talking with someone on the phone, you're going to get more color, you're going to understand the subject better, and you're going to write a better piece."

As it turned out, none of the New York media outlets that covered the cemetery theme park sent anyone across town to check out Investors Real Estate Development. Like Paulin in San Francisco, these New York journalists did their reporting with a telephone and the Internet - and some, Skaggs claims, didn't even bother with the phone.

A common excuse for this kind of corner cutting is deadline pressure. A 1999 report by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "Examining Our Credibility," reveals that journalists and the public agree that it is more important for news outlets to get the story right than get it first. Yet many commentators believe that journalism is becoming a 24-hour competition for fragmented audiences, which may continue to dilute journalistic credibility despite the best intentions.

In their book, "Warp Speed," Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that mushrooming news outlets and the immediacy of the Internet "batter down the very notion of journalist as gatekeeper." They continue: "In the continuous news cycle, the press never rests to sum up; here is what we know at the end of the day. It is forever pushing forward, grasping."

The idea that technology might be subverting journalists' ability to avoid dubious news stories made me wonder about the Internet's role in media hoaxes. The centerpiece of Skaggs' hoax, after all, was the company Web site. And Internet-borne hoaxes, often spread by e-mail, have grown so prevalent that they have fostered a new segment of online security organizations - "hoaxbusters."

"With the Internet, everything's much more imprecise," said Hilary Abramson, managing editor of Pacific News Service an alternative newswire in San Francisco. "Now everyone has all this information and once something's in there, it gets repeated and repeated and repeated."

Nevertheless, there are journalists, such as David Weir, former managing editor of the Internet magazine Salon.com, who say the Internet might actually improve journalistic credibility. Weir, who's now the editor-in-chief of the new San Francisco city magazine 7x7, argues that unlike the few angry letters to the editor sent to a newspaper or magazine, the cascades of negative reaction to inaccurate news stories that are possible online will foster a kind of media "brand awareness" that might spur better reporting and increased credibility.

"A greater diversity of voices has emerged over the past seven years thanks to the Internet," Weir said. "Citizens are better able to gain access to broad categories of useful information than ever before."

Branwyn, the proponent of do-it-yourself media, takes a middle road in his evaluation of the Internet's impact on journalism.

"I hate it when people say the Internet is one thing," he said. "It's a technology that carries a whole spectrum of media. ... It's true that there's a lot of crap and half-truths online, but more so than in mainstream media? I think not."

Nevertheless, Branwyn says that journalists and news audiences have yet to adjust themselves to the realities and limitations of the Internet.

"I think it will take some time for people to develop new-media literacy skills," he said, "to be able to better discern real news and information from the dross online."
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Still, what does all this talk of deadline pressure and the 24-hour news cycle have to do with Mother Jones? The magazine comes out every other month, which is about as slow as it gets in the news business. While money and other resources are certainly an issue there, time shouldn't be. How did Skaggs' story make it past a fact checker who'd been trained to look at every word of an article with a skeptical eye? The answer reveals that fact checking is no real defense against a well-crafted hoax.

Magazine fact checkers are typically junior staffers or interns, as they were at Mother Jones. I had been an intern fact checker at Pittsburgh magazine and later a fact checker while on staff at the Atlantic Monthly. Like the much-vaunted New Yorker fact checkers, we at the Atlantic were taught to be extreme. I tried to pass on that extremism to the checkers at Mother Jones. Never accept a clip as a source. Check every spelling letter-by-letter. If you don't think 60 cents is the "bulk" of a dollar, pick up your red pencil and say so.

Nevertheless, fact checkers have a fatal flaw. They are beholden to the words on the page. They make sure the reporter didn't flub any arithmetic, misrepresent somebody's opinion, take statistics out of context or make other common errors. But a fact checker's purpose has never been to uncover deliberate deceit. For example, if the story says that small-town Mayor So-and-So thinks such and such, the fact checker is going to call up Mr. So-and-So, check the spelling of his name, his title, and ask a few questions to see if such and such is really what he thinks. The checker is not, however, going to call a city council member and ask if Mr. So-and-So truly is the mayor.

In the case of Skaggs' hoax, the article in Mother Jones quoted the fake company's Web site, listed details from the fictional business plan (also on the Web site) and offered a quote from an artist co-conspirator. In the hoax's aftermath, I struggled to draw up a fact-checking lesson from the experience and finally joked that the interns should close every future interview like the movie detective Columbo. "Oh, I have just one last question for you," they could growl at the source. "Are you Joey Skaggs?"

I believe fact checking is invaluable to good journalism, and yet any sense that it is a defense against a well-planned hoax is wrongheaded. Plus, as I mentioned above, it's difficult to imagine the press operating without occasional reportorial shortcuts. I've used them myself - in this very article. Even knowing what I know about Skaggs, for instance, I conducted my interviews with him entirely by phone and never once traveled to New York to verify his identity by checking his driver's license or stealing his mail (as one Skaggs profiler did). In fact, when I consider how little immediate contact I've had with so much of what's in this article, a little shiver runs down my spine.

The more I work as a journalist, the more I realize that while we may pride ourselves on skepticism and double checking, we rely to an even greater degree on trust, faith, convention, and construct.

Certainly Paulin, of Mother Jones, did. "If people tell you something, your initial reaction is to believe what they say," he said. "It's only the highly suspicious or paranoid who automatically approach everything they're presented with in life with is this for real?'"

A run-in with Skaggs reinforces the need for more careful reporting and zealous fact checking. And yet, I suspect that any news outlet that endeavored to make itself truly hoax proof through these means would be almost paralyzed by its zeal.

"There's never any excuse for sloppy reporting," said Branwyn. "If one prints a story, one should make every reasonable effort to make sure what you're telling readers is accurate. ... That said, life is complicated, and all romantic notions aside, when it comes down to it, journalism is a job, and we're all lazy sometimes."
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In "The Art of the Con," published in the March/April 1999 edition of Extra!, Skaggs writes that the secret to fooling the media is to package a story in "a funny, sexually suggestive, controversial or highly technical wrapping ... giving [the media] what they want -a provocative story with great visuals that's outrageous yet plausible."

When I read that quote to Paulin, his assessment was quick and to the point.

"Perfect," he said. "You know, I think that Skaggs really is excellent at what he does. And I'm not just saying that because he fooled me, but because he obviously does put a lot of thought into calibrating what people would go for."

"One reason we got tripped up," said Paulin, "was our desire to do something a little lighter." The cemetery amusement park story ran in the visually driven "Exhibit" section of Mother Jones, before the columns and features. These articles, Paulin explains, are "the stuff that leavens the serious and somewhat dreary and rather earnest reporting that we normally do."

What's selected as "news" by the mass media is one of Skaggs' sticking points. He told me he believed that the television news model has been adopted by media everywhere. "It's scripted," he said. "Start with the big news of the day, then give a little fluff for the people. Have an animal story, a kid story. It's infotainment."

According to a study by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, from 1977 to 1997 the percentage of all news stories that could be categorized as just straight accounts of what happened dropped from 52 to 32. Following up on that theme, Paulin proposed that a news outlet that covered nothing light or entertaining, which ran none of the "outrageous yet plausible" stories, might avoid hoaxes of the satirical, Skaggs variety.

And yet, many journalists, including Paulin, believe that entertainment and news can and should co-exist.

"Look at this issue with the hoax piece," he said and read through the table of contents. There are articles about NAFTA's effects on factory workers, the business failings of George W. Bush, the "disappeared" in Pinochet's Chile, and a photo essay on "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland.

"You know, those are all pretty grim subjects and not easy things to read about," Paulin continues. "But that's part of the mission of this magazine - to confront tough stories, but to do it in an attractively packaged and well-written and good-read kind of way. And no matter what they say, any media outlet is going to have that as part of its agenda."

Abramson, of Pacific News Service, says it took her many years as a journalist to understand the value of entertainment to her craft.

"In the old days, I would have said, screw entertainment, it takes up valuable space.' Now I have more of a sense of the real world and all the kinds of things a paper should be to people."

Most journalists would argue, furthermore, that the media is not one, monolithic creator of mass messages, and that Skaggs' leveling of its quality and motivations is inaccurate.

Skaggs, however, pokes fun at it all, not just the fluff, "mainstream" media or television news. When I asked whether he saw any differences between, say, a local television news report and The New York Times, he replied, "[My art] is a criticism about media, but not just about media, it's about society. Whether the media is big, corporate groupers or large-mouthed minnows, I just put it out there for whoever nibbles and takes the bait."

"It's a business," was his description of Mother Jones, "just like all the rest." One of his biggest criticisms, in fact, was of a mailing the magazine sent out to promote itself as an alternative news source. "We'll give you the real news," he said, parroting the mailing. "Total bullshit."

The news, Skaggs believes, is not separate from the rest of society's foolishness. It's an integral part of it. A satirical hoax targets the whole shebang in order, as Skaggs puts it, "to show how ridiculous we really are."

This is where the tangled challenges of the high-minded call to "seek the truth and report it" coalesce. Not only is complete accuracy impossible, but accuracy does not equal truth and never will. As journalist and press critic Walter Lippmann wrote in his seminal book "Public Opinion" (1922), "[T]he real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance." The press, he believed, was "like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision."

And thus, it's a catch 22, since a Skaggs-proof press would still present the public with what Lippmann termed "a pseudo-environment" - only it would be a pseudo-environment that lacked reminders of its built-in artifice and its inevitable subjectivity. It's a paradox that Skaggs tacitly admits when he criticizes the press so vehemently about being sloppy and gullible while declaring that he hopes it never changes.

"I'm very happy to use [the media] as a vehicle to reach a larger audience with my messages about humanity's inherent foolishness," he's told reporters before.

Satirical media hoaxes, like those perpetrated by Skaggs, leave me conflicted. I never want to encounter Skaggs again. Yet I also think that he reveals the need to mingle critical thinking with free speech, particularly in this information age. While we may never be able to escape from a mediated "pseudo-environment," I still believe that journalism, when done thoughtfully and well, is integral to a free society. Then again, I suspect that the occasional hoax is no less integral.

"Maybe a controlled press, like in China, would not fall for Skaggs," said Weir of 7x7. But, he added, "I wouldn't enjoy the kind of media where Skaggs couldn't succeed. Freedom includes the freedom to make mistakes."

"Everybody needs to be a critical reader," Weir concludes. And I agree.

"It's human nature," Skaggs told me. "We are designed to deceive ourselves and we deceive others. Everything goes through the filter of your mind and emerges as your take on reality. I mean, can you imagine a world without satire?"
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Chris Berdik is a free-lance journalist. He can be reached at cberdik@hotmail.com.

Copyright 1996-2002 Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved.



Portrait of Joey Skaggs

By Tomaz Lavric

December, 2001




THE BIG CITY

If You Fool Us Once, Jail for You

By JOHN TIERNEY

The New York Times

November 6, 2001


SENATOR CHARLES E. SCHUMER wants to make it a federal crime to threaten or falsely report a terrorist attack. If his bill passes, a hoaxer would face penalties of up to five years in prison, fines of at least $10,000 and reimbursement of the costs due to the hoax, such as police overtime.

Would the bill actually stop any of the guys now amusing themselves by sprinkling baby powder in subway stations and mailing letters with fake threats of anthrax? It seemed logical to consult the dean of hoaxers, Joey Skaggs, the proprietor of www.hoaxes.com and a veteran of three decades of media pranks.

Mr. Skaggs, who is 56 and lives in Greenwich Village, has convinced gullible journalists that he is, among many other things, a psychic lawyer, a gypsy activist fighting the use of the term "gypsy moth" and a doctor who treats baldness by transplanting scalps from cadavers. He made national news by dressing up as a priest pedaling the Portofess, a confessional booth mounted behind a tricycle ("Religion on the Move for People on the Go!"). He appeared on television news programs as the proprietor of a canine brothel for sexually deprived pets - the Cathouse for Dogs.

Mr. Skaggs has mixed feelings about the proposed new penalties. On the one hand, he said, five years may not be enough punishment for someone who causes mass panic - the kind of prankster that Mr. Skaggs disdains. Mr. Skaggs, who calls himself a "sociopolitical satirist" as well as "media activist" and "culture jammer," worries that the jerks are ruining his profession's good name.

"I'm not into meaningless, stupid, vicious, vindictive acts of rage against people or institutions," Mr. Skaggs said. "Nor am I interested in delusional people who confuse their lack of conscience with some tweaked concept of anarchy, pulling off the equivalent of the burning-bag-of-poop-at-the-door trick."

But Mr. Skaggs also worries that a law forbidding the false reporting of threats would outlaw some of his own work. In 1997, for instance, he fabricated evidence of a scientific project called BioPEEP, which was supposedly perfecting a way to put viruses into consumer products that would addict people to the products and then eradicate members of certain races.

"Much of what I have done could become illegal," Mr. Skaggs said."The purpose of most common pranks is to embarrass, humiliate, frighten, or exploit without malicious intent. How will a law differentiate between a vicious terroristic threat, a harmless juvenile prank and a socially revealing satire? And if they can outlaw my work, what about politicians, advertising and public relations spinsters, and irresponsible journalists?"

NEWS organizations could be in big financial trouble if they were billed for the time spent by the police dealing with minuscule threats inflated into scares by journalists. Politicians could be bankrupted if they had to pay for all the unnecessary alarms they sound to get their faces on television. But it's safe to assume that prosecutors would not be going after such powerful targets, and probably not after anyone as media savvy as Mr. Skaggs, either.

The ones who would be prosecuted are the losers who get their kicks by anonymously scaring others, and it certainly seems fair to charge them for the costs they impose on society. But why stop with money? The time they cost the public is often worth more than the money directly spent responding to a hoax. The total time wasted by the public can easily be longer than the five-year prison sentence in Mr. Schumer's bill.

If, say, someone sprinkled baby powder in a subway station, thereby delaying 200,000 people for an hour, the total amount of time wasted would be nearly 23 years. Wouldn't it be fair to sentence hoaxers to serve the time they've already forced others to serve? If this approach were applied to the creators of computer viruses - an hour in jail for every hour spent disinfecting a computer - some of them would spend their lives in jail. If you've ever had your hard drive wiped out this way, you may think one lifetime is not enough.

But would it be fair to put nerdy hoaxers into prison with violent criminals? Perhaps they deserve their own prisons, where the wardens could cater to their quirks. The imprisoned hoaxers might, for instance, occasionally notice suspicious powders in their cells or odd tastes in their food. They could be awakened for false fire alarms in the middle of the night - all done in their own peculiar spirit of fun, of course. During the holiday season, they could all be treated to whoopee cushions.



This Isn't Funny

By Joey Skaggs

November 1, 2001

Reflections sparked by correspondence with John Tierney for a New York Times article subsequently published Tuesday, November 6, 2001...



The events that began September 11, 2001 have changed life as we knew it. We are now in a global conflict. The U.S. economy has been severely impacted and has, in some sectors, been shut down by a series of events that have included thousands of hoaxes. CNN reported over 2,300 episodes of Anthrax scares in the last several weeks, the majority of which have proven to be false.

As an artist who has used the "prank" to make social statements for over 35 years, I am watching as our government and media have declared all-out war on hoaxing as well as terrorism.

I would like to make clear that I have always held mindless, vicious, self-serving, "screaming-fire-in-the-theater" hoaxes as irresponsible, stupid, dangerous and destructive. I don't condone anyone who participates in or adds to the public panic and the demand on already over-burdened agencies responding to deadly serious acts of terrorism and sabotage.

It is my opinion that anyone who is using this opportunity to create false alarms is a saboteur to society and should be dealt with swiftly and strongly. These hoaxes are criminal acts and those who do this must be brought to justice.

I have known the power of the prank for decades. I've explored and polished it as a method of communicating my ideas. And I think it's fair to say that I've proven that the prank can be an effective tool for delivering propaganda, whether it promotes independent thinking or tells you what to think (in many ways, just like the media). It's purpose is to manipulate thinking.

My pranks have been designed to make a statement that hopefully opens people's eyes to a different way of looking at social issues while shedding light on the process of manipulation. Granted, this is an unusual occupation. But it works for me. It is my art. And it has given me a platform to spark conversation and debate.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece that was published in Extra! (the publication of FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) in which I stated "I'm not into meaningless, stupid, vicious, vindictive acts of rage against people or institutions. Nor am I interested in delusional people who confuse their lack of conscience with some tweaked concept of anarchy, pulling off the equivalent of the burning-bag-of-poop-at-the door trick..."

And I elaborated on the meaning of a "good" prank, which, in my opinion "attempts to shed light on an issue and to create social change. It is the manipulation of ideas and emotions in order to shift focus onto otherwise hidden agendas or social injustices. Using elements of truth, irony, humor and satire, a good prank is meant to target closed-mindedness, prejudice, hatred and unquestioning thinking. It deconstructs the status quo. It attacks the misuse of power by media, government, business and religion..."

I own the URLs "pranks.com" and "hoaxes.com," which both feed into "joeyskaggs.com." So many of the people who come to my site are looking for mindless pranks. Thus, the section on my Web site called "Top Secret" at http://www.joeyskaggs.com/html/topsec/index.html, where I try to educated young wannabe pranksters about being responsible while doing pranks. If I can influence even some of them to not join in on this craze to cause panic, I'll feel better.

But it's not just kids. I get emails from people of all ages asking me to give them ideas for pranks. I don't respond to requests like that. It's important to me to clearly differentiate between what I do as an artist/activist/satirist/educator and those who perpetrate vicious criminal acts.

I've recently been asked how to catch the hoaxers or, better yet, how to stop them. There's no way to stop people from perpetrating pranks, just like there's no way to stop people from letting their imaginations get the best of them, or stop people from hating other people.

A hoax is a perfect weapon. It is just as effective to imply mass destruction as it is to actually cause mass destruction. It allows a small person to experience power. It's David against Goliath.

All the surveillance cameras in the world, monetary rewards, tapped phone lines, and severe punishments will hardly dissuade a wacko, an unscrupulous hateful person, or a kid not fully comprehending the consequences of his or her actions.

The news media is not handling the situation in such a way as to dissuade these hoaxes. Broadly displaying each and every scare, is not a good way to play poker. These pranks have gotten far too much attention. When someone wants attention and doesn't get it, they either stop or they move on to some other technique. The media has been effectively supporting the terrorists' and the hoaxers' positions by reporting on stories not substantiated by facts, then following with changes to their previously "first but false" reports with more speculation. This just adds to the fear factor.

So far, we have no evidence about who is behind these "pranks," but I suppose it might be: 1) a group of foreign terrorists, 2) a rogue, like the Uni-bomber, 3) a foreign government, 4) People who hate junk mail (that's a joke), 5) people in America who hate America, or 6) kids or malcontent adults (the equivalent of pulling a fire alarm when there is no fire), or, perhaps most sinister and paranoid -- 7) political operatives, in an effort to influence the US to agree to attack Iraq or other enemies countries.

But whoever it is, the moment of the devastatingly damaging hoax is upon us. Not many people ever imagined that a series of inexpensive, simple acts could cause so much disturbance on such an international scale.

The reality is that Anthrax is the least of our potential problems. There are other biochemical agents that are far more deadly. And then there's the threat of a nuclear suitcase.

I attempted to address the issue of new and alternative weaponry with my Stop BioPEEP hoax a few years ago. In this piece, as a non-existent character named Dr. Joseph Howard, I revealed a plot by multi-national corporations to cause mass addiction to certain consumer products in an effort to secure market share. In this fictitious scenario, I said that this scientific breakthrough was then usurped by the U.S. Government as a perfect weapon. Corporations could profit while supplying product to the addicted population, but at some future date, the government would be able to step in and control or eliminate populations at will. For example, one could secretly eradicate specific targeted racial DNA types by altering the products to contain a virus worse than Ebola, without fear of retaliation.

This hoax can be found at http://www.joeyskaggs.com/html/retsub.html. (scroll down to 1998). To me, this was science fiction. But I always thought it could easily be real, as is true of most of my hoaxes. As an aside, given the current situation, if I staged Stop BioPEEP today, I would most likely be arrested.

In fact, this may be why the number of people looking at my Web site has doubled in the last few weeks. I used to get about 4,000 hits a day. In recent weeks, the hits have gone up over 7,000. And my site is being perused by more people from the US Government, US Military and Arab countries than ever before. Perhaps they are looking to see if there are any clues of involvement or to see if I am trying to agitate or inspire others to do hoaxes. Or maybe they are trying to learn a thing or two. Who knows?

I realize that I must be very careful right now because a lot of people (particularly some overzealous government agents or previously hoaxed journalists) don't really understand what I do or why I do it. And my notoriety could spark serious repercussions. So, rather than attempting to do any new public pieces right now, I've put all the work I was developing on hold. I may even decide this is no longer an avenue I wish to pursue. The threat of the penalty is far too severe if my work was misunderstood.. I'm, instead, offering to provide public commentary on this subject about which I know a quite a lot.

Years ago, numerous cities stopped people from pulling fire alarms on street corners by removing the fire boxes. We can't do that. The only thing we can hope to do is to help lessen the inequities people all over the world perceive to be caused by the United States' foreign policy. And, on a domestic level, we must use education to raise consciousness and thereby eliminate the need some people have to take advantage of others. Other than that, we need to be vigilant and have a support system in place to deal with any real threats.

I sincerely hope that this current reality of paranoia and political correctness will be short lived. Humor is essential. Pranks provide a wonderful and necessary jolt to awareness. Hopefully the future will offer the opportunity for pranksters to pull off constructive, positive, responsible, funny ones, and that we can once again appreciate irony and satire.



abcnews.com
June 7, 2001


By Buck Wolf

In Praise of a Liar

Toyota Comedy Festival Features Retrospective of Hoax Artst Joey Skaggs



Joey Skaggs says journalists are simpleminded, easily manipulated and will print almost any outrageous story you tell them. As one more simpleminded reporter, I guess I'll just write down everything he says and print it.

Skaggs is a self-described hoax artist. Over the past 35 years, he's fooled various newspapers, TV stations and wire services with outrageous fabrications. In the mid 1970s, he emerged on various news reports as the proprietor of a dog bordello what was otherwise called a "cathouse for dogs." Several years later he emerged as a would-be Sy Sperling with an outrageous plan to restore the hairline of balding men follicle transplants from cadavers.

Skaggs also has appeared in newspapers and TV as the proprietor of a celebrity sperm bank, the inventor of a health drink made from cockroaches and the first man to windsurf from Hawaii to California.

"I've never had a hoax that failed," says Skaggs, a man famous for his lies.

While The Wolf Files questions such boasting, it's certainly true that, at times, Skaggs has made monkeys out of many of us in the media. Now, the Toyota Comedy Festival in New York included a retrospective on his work at this year's fete.

Skaggs also claims he's never played a hoax as a for-profit scam. "A scammer is trying to do someone out of money," he says. "That happens all the time. I'm using humor to show the system for what it is."

For most of these pranks, Skaggs says he merely sends out a simple press release or makes a few calls. Journalists simply never bothered to verify their facts, he says. Here, then, are some of Skaggs' greatest hits:

Skaggs at Work

Hair Replacement From the Dead
Hair Today Ltd. gleaned a substantial amount of air time and ink in 1990 as a firm specializing in a cure of baldness through hair transplants from the dead, much the way doctors would transplant a kidney. Skaggs said the ideal recipients would be salesmen or TV news anchors who needed to "look their best" and could afford the $3,500 price tag. The Boston Globe was among the news organizations fooled on this one.

The Fat Squad
Skaggs assumed the role of Joe Bones, a former Marine Corps drill sergeant determined to wipe out obesity. He told ABC's Good Morning America in 1986 that for "$300 a day plus expenses" his commandos would disarm any dieter who tried to sneak a cookie before bedtime. Host David Hartman later told the press: "We were had, in spades." The Philadelphia Inquirer was also duped.

The Miracle Roach Hormone Cure
Remember Kafka's Metamorphosis? Skaggs emerged in 1981 as Dr. Josef Gregor, an entomologist who extolled the virtue of consuming cockroach hormones as a cure for colds, acne, anemia and menstrual cramps. WNBC-TV's Live at Five featured an interview with the doctor, who claimed to have graduated from the University of Bogota in Colombia. Skaggs says no one checked his credentials. The newscasters only seemed to become suspicious when Skaggs played his organization's theme song "La Cucaracha."

Gypsy Moth Anti-Defamation League
In a 1982 New York Times article, Jo-Jo the Gypsy protested the political incorrectness of the term "gypsy moth" at a time when the little critters were devastating trees in the Northeast. Jo-Jo, another Skaggs incarnation, railed against the injustice of associating the pesky moths with Gypsies, a downtrodden minority that has long suffered from discrimination. Jo-Jo suggested the buggers should be called "Hitler Moths." The New York Post gleefully reported the esteemed newspaper's mistake, in an article headlined "Times falls for the old switcheroo."

Celebrity Sperm Auction
Attention ladies: Interested in "certified and authenticated rock star sperm?" Posing as Giuseppe Scagolli in 1976, Skaggs appealed to women who wanted children with sperm provided by the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. Several wire services and Ms. magazine picked up the story of a sperm bank robbery.

The Dog Bordello
Finally, a place for frustrated pooches a cathouse for dogs! Skaggs planted an ad in New York's Village Voice newspaper in 1976 that promised "a savory selection of hot bitches" for your sexually deprived mutt, with the warning: "dogs only." Skaggs posed as a dog pimp, promising every Rover satisfaction for only $50. The media lapped it up, and the story hit all the wire services and local cable shows. Even ABC's New York affiliate covered the event.

The point is rather apparent. We ask so much from the news organizations we trust. If a poor artist with few resources can fool the media into believing outrageous lies, what hope do we have against a well-funded, malicious liar?

Buck Wolf is a producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.



New York Times
January 6, 2001


By Chris Hedges

Journalists Really Do Have an Agenda



Tom McElroy, 39, an editor at The Associated Press with a silver stud in his left ear and a black bicycle helmet tossed casually on his desk, would not make anyone's list of media heavyweights. But from his small, cluttered cubicle in Rockefeller Center, covered with pages of faxes and news releases, he puts together the Associated Press daybook, a schedule of daily events in the city that often determines what gets covered in New York and what does not.

Groggy editors and reporters at newspapers and at radio and television stations check the daybook daily as they start work. And public relations people, knowing that it is the holy grail of city journalism, sit dog-faced in their offices if their clients' events are not posted on it.

"If an event is not listed on the A.P. daybook it is not worth doing," said Edward Skyler, who works in the public relations department at Bloomberg. "But if we do not get on it, it is usually our own fault. You need to follow up. A fax is not enough. And following up is a lot better than calling TV stations the next day and hearing them say, 'Sorry, it is not on the daybook.' Those words make your heart sink."

The daybook was born in another era. It grew out of The Associated Press's city wire, which, back when New York had about a dozen newspapers, sent reporters to work school board meetings and police precincts and to stalk the halls of city agencies. But by the 1960's, such coverage was no longer in demand. The number of papers dwindled, and the remaining ones began to back away from covering the minutiae of official life in New York. And when the city wire folded in the 1970's, only the daybook remained.

"It has changed," said Sam Boyle, the A.P.'s bureau chief for New York City. "Neither we nor our members are covering every tree in the forest. It is no longer viable. But everyone who wants people to know what is going on sends the event in to the daybook. It is the one spot read by everyone involved in metro coverage."

The daybook is compiled to give members of the media an agenda for major events taking place each day in the city. These events can be news conferences by the mayor or wacky promotional events that are used to leaven the nightly news. All those who subscribe to the A.P. metro or broadcast wires, including this newspaper, receive the service.

On Wednesday morning, Mr. McElroy sifted through faxes that lay piled in a wire mesh box on his desk. He was compiling the daybook for Thursday and decided against listing a recital by the Wagner Society, but he eagerly read about an event planned by the Council on Foreign Relations to be attended by all five Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"This will be good," he said, setting the notice down next to his computer. He routinely tosses out a lot of the blatant promotional events, he said. Many supermodels, in a move that never ceases to lure some photographers, promise in news releases to take off their shirts.

"Even on a busy day I try to put some little nonprofit on that cannot afford a big public relations firm and wants coverage," he said. "When I go home and see it on the news it makes me feel good."

As the events were slowly compiled for release in the afternoon, Michael R. Bloomberg, who may or may not run for mayor, scored a coup by getting on twice. It was Mr. Bloomberg's recent interest in the daybook that helped fuel the speculation about his political ambitions.

"A couple of weeks ago Bloomberg contacted us with an item saying he would be delivering meals to the elderly," Mr. McElroy said. "This immediately pricked everyone's ears. We had not seen him on the daybook. We figured this guy, maybe, was going to run for mayor. When a politician gets started he or she wants to get on the daybook every week."

One of its regulars is Parks and Recreation Commissioner Henry J. Stern, who is an undisputed master at staging visually appealing events for TV news.

The event this particular Thursday, at least as advertised, was enticing. To herald WinterFest 2001, which begins today in Central Park, a singing skier was to serenade the crowd, which consisted of about a dozen reporters and park employees. Boomer the Wonder Dog and urban park rangers were to traverse the East Meadow of Central Park in snowshoes and cross-country skis, pulled by huskies.

But the phone calls from Mr. Stern's office, announcing that the commissioner would be late, began to reach reporters' cell phones about 10:45 that morning. The news was greeted grimly by television crews stomping up and down on plywood set out in the frigid East Meadow.

Forty minutes later, they were still waiting. The commissioner canceled and was replaced by Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner for the borough of Manhattan. Boomer the Wonder Dog was staying home. A skier, pulled by the huskies, raced around the meadow for the cameras, and Melissa Kleiner, a reporter for Bloomberg Radio, unfolded a printout of her next assignment, taken from the daybook. Her fingers were red with cold. It was a news conference with Jane S. Hoffman, the city's consumer affairs commissioner, at 42 Broadway.

Ms. Hoffman planned to hand out reimbursement checks to people who had been victims of General Home Improvements of Queens, a contractor that had been convicted of fraud.

"We are waiting for the victims," she said, by way of apology for the delay.

"We are the victims," growled Woody Woods, a cameraman with WWOR-TV, in heavy, snow-encrusted boots and black ski pants.

Polly Kreisman, an investigative reporter for WPIX-TV, said she was now covering one event a week from the daybook because her investigative reports, which often take weeks to produce, do not put her on the air often enough.

"Oh, good," she said, glancing toward the props near the lectern, "another giant check."

"Things get covered because they are on the daybook," she said, "but the events may not warrant news coverage. It is just easier. Reporters don't have to do as much work. If you have to be on the air at 5, no matter what, a daybook event is perfect. You do not have to spend the whole morning trying to develop a story."

And so the day ran. A plaque was unveiled at 55 Broad Street to honor New York City's first volunteer organization, the 1737 volunteer fire department. The Suffolk County executive, Robert J. Gaffney, welcomed Miss New York USA, Lisa Pavlakis; American Jewish organizations held a lunch for Israel's new consul general; and the Port Authority's executive director, Robert E. Boyle, spoke about snow removal at Kennedy International Airport.

But things do sometimes go wrong. The Council on Foreign Relations called and said the event with the Joint Chiefs had "erroneously" appeared on the daybook and was closed to the public. Mr. McElroy had to send out an advisory on the wire to alert the media.

And once in a while, pranksters try to get sham events listed, not an easy task because Mr. McElroy, who has had the job for two months, and other editors are required to investigate every listing.

Joey Skaggs, who describes himself as a media artist, said he often tried to make the daybook and staged events to attract news crews. For example, in a news release he headlined "The Final Curtain," he promised to build a memorial theme park mall, with amusement rides, restaurants and a vast cemetery with urns.

The proposal included a promise to ship the urns to various memorial parks around the world in a time-share arrangement for the dead. He announced that it was a hoax in May after a year of putting out notices and creating an elaborate Web site. The story was picked up by several major news outlets.

"If I am not on the daybook several times a year, I am upset," he said. "Most all of the stories taken from these kinds of press releases are nothing more than hype. They are made up of distortions and half-truths that get passed off as news. All they and I want is attention. The difference is that I am ringing the bell and no one is listening."

But Sam Boyle of The Associated Press said he doubted that Mr. Skaggs made the daybook as often as he claimed.

"We check out the items supplied to us," Mr. Boyle said, "and while we are not always familiar with every individual telling us about every item listed, we have no indication of that many fabricated items."

Thursday concluded with readings by the winners of the National Book Awards in the New York Public Library. It received the least coverage. There were no television crews and only a handful of reporters, in part because the nighttime event came after most news broadcasts.

Writers like Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," and Gloria Whelan, the author of the children's book "Homeless Bird," spoke about the loneliness and difficulty of writing.

After work, Mr. McElroy often heads with other journalists to Siberia, a dingy bar in the subway stop at Broadway and 50th Street.

There, he talks with animation about his dream of writing screenplays. He sold a script several years ago to the television show "Law and Order" and is working on his ninth unsold screenplay, the story of the American mercenary Frederick Ward, who trained Chinese soldiers during the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century.

Writing the daybook, he hopes, will not define the rest of his life.

"Anything with the Jets or the Mets gets put on," he said, over a drink of ouzo. "I will put the Yankees and the Giants on, but with not as much enthusiasm. I have yet to put on a screenwriter."



Joey Skaggs

Interviewed by Scott Lauinger

Visual Opinion (VO)

Published by the School of Visual Arts

New York, New York

March, 2000, Volume 6, Number 5


In 1976, readers of the Village Voice read an ad for a "Cat House for Dogs" promising sexual gratification for your dog for $50. The ad was followed by press releases to major news outlets announcing the new venture. The result was a flood of incoming phone calls to the dog pimp, a mysterious figure by the name of Joey Skaggs. Some calls were from people asking if they could have sex with the dogs. The news spread and generated outrage from the ASPCA, the Bureau of Animal Affairs, The NYPD Vice Squad, the Mayor's office, and coverage by sources from Al Goldstein's Midnight Blue to WABC. The WABC coverage led to a subpoena from the Attorney General's office for Mr. Skaggs. The gig was up. The authorities had successfully closed down this threat to humanity and the world could go on living. But then Mr. Skaggs held a press conference at the Attorney General's office announcing that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax, that the naivete of the media who bought in to it had been recorded for history and that this whole performance was indeed the chosen medium of art of one man, Joey Skaggs.

Mr. Skaggs, is an SVA alumnus and sometimes SVA teacher whose body of work over 34 years includes hoaxes at the expense of Entertainment Tonight, Geraldo, the National Enquirer, and projects with descriptions such as Hippie Bus Tour of Queens, Fame Exchange with John and Yoko, Celebrity Sperm Bank, Gypsies Against Stereotypical Propaganda, Windsurfing from Hawaii to California, Fish Condos, Bad Guys Talent Management Agency, Brooklyn Bridge Lottery, Maqdananda: the Psychic Attorney, and the recent Rudy Doody happening in Washington Square Park.

VO: Joey, can you state what it is exactly that you do?

Joey Skaggs: That question usually depends on who's asking and how I feel at the moment. One of my favorite responses is that I'm a proctologist. I deal with assholes every day. (I usually leave a long pause after this statement and stare at the questioner.)

But since that's not the answer you're looking for...

I'm a fine artist who has chosen to use the media as his medium, as a painter would use a canvas. I started out as a painter and explored other media. I quickly realized the difference between the creative process and the business of art. Dealing with the pretentious art world was unacceptable to me. So instead of knocking on the front door asking for admittance, I empowered myself and took control.

I use various techniques that combine fine art, commercial art, public relations and advertising to create a social, political, and/or satirical statement. My pieces are hoaxes/pranks, or theatrical performances. But they're not performed in conventional theaters. Instead they unfold to an unsuspecting public in the world arena.

I create elaborate, detailed, bogus realities designed to fool the news media and the public. I deal with social issues, self righteously pointing out what I perceive to be hype, hypocrisy, prejudice, stereotypical thinking and other societal ills.

I do this in three stages. The first is the "hook" during which I promote a concept (a cat house for dogs, a fat squad, a portable confessional booth, etc.).

The second stage is the "line." This is where I document the phenomenon of miscommunication -- who falls for it and who puts what spin on it to serve what agenda. I record all of my incoming phone calls. I keep a log. I hire press-clipping services for print and electronic news media, and, in my alias, I conduct bogus interviews promoting the prank. I appear on television shows and provide radio and newspaper interviews.

The third stage is the "sinker." This is when I reveal the truth and document how the news media deals with being deceived. Do they admit it to their audience? Do they trivialize me or the prank, dismissing it? Do they attack me? Or, do they admit their irresponsibility and examine the issues brought forth in the concept?

I collect and archive the entire life of the performance, both my own documentation and as it is portrayed in the news media. This then constitutes my work of art.

For the last 34 years I've been able to continuously generate front page international news stories, in many cases repeatedly fooling the same news outlets (CNN, ABC, NBC, UPI, AP, etc.).

This art form allows me to communicate in a provocative and hopefully meaningful way to a larger audience than one would find at a traditional exhibition or performance hall.

VO: Do you have a manifesto?

Joey Skaggs: As far as a manifesto goes -- a manifesto is something that evolves as a person evolves. For more detail, I suggest that the curious take a look at my Web site at http://www.joeyskaggs.com. I have stated my intent and ethical stance in the "Manifesto" section. More than a manifesto, I would call it a description of the art of the prank.

VO: In a time when media is THE industry and an exceptionally growing one at that, how are you coping with the growing outlets for you're work?

Joey Skaggs: The media is my arena/playground/workplace. And it certainly has the potential to be everyone or anyone's arena/playground/workplace. But that means that there's more shit to sift through to find content and value. On the positive side, there's more opportunity for artists who have rejected the traditional art world, or who have been rejected by it, to have a creative outlet and potentially, a global audience.

VO: You said that you get a lot of E-mail from internet "graffiti artists," so to speak, and you just worked with ESPO. Is there a connection between you and the graffiti world?

Joey Skaggs: My work has striking similarities in that I "tag" the media and it's not appreciated by the conventional establishment. However, the work is very different from graffiti art.

As an artist I'm constantly dealing with the struggle to destroy something and in the process to create something. But, I'm attempting to destroy values and beliefs, myths and propaganda. I do not condone the destruction of private or public property or someone else's art by unimaginative, hostile tagging. It's not the hostile part that is offensive to me. It's the unimaginative part. I believe there are many more creative ways to make a statement and be heard and seen. Getting attention without a well thought-out statement or plan is unacceptable to me.

Also, I'm not interested in being busted, fined, jailed, or not able to work for fear of being caught in a legal loop. I avoid being incarcerated at all costs. This is an incentive for me. I strive to be provocative, iconoclastic, and in-your-face without doing things that are illegal and will lead to incarceration -- if I can help it. Basically because it's non productive. Not to say that I'm unwilling to be arrested. I just don't want to be stopped.

I want to make it clear that as an artist/teacher/activist I applaud all individuals who seek a creative process to express themselves, their philosophies, ideals, discontents, needs, and wishes. But, as in all things, there's good, bad, mediocre, and great.

Both pranks and graffiti art can be considered juvenile bad-boy art. For the most part they're both "fuck-you, here I am in your face, I don't buy your bullshit" art. But my criterion for getting attention is that it be a thoughtful expression that's exciting and inspiring and well executed. Otherwise it's just a missed opportunity.

VO: Is the current media environment ripe for the plucking or too apathetic to care? What I mean is, you've been doing this since the late 60's, in what ways have you seen the reaction to your work change in that time?

JS: As ironic as this may sound, I haven't seen a great change in the reaction to my work. And I am grateful. My intent has always been to provoke. And I would hope that my work is always met with interest, shock, and/or outrage and that it becomes a subject of meaningful discussion. Passive acceptance is the death of any artist.

VO: You've made the prank an act of artistic willpower. What's the difference between what you do and the work of a scam artist or a con-artist?

JS: The difference is the intent.

VO: The pranks you do, especially your earlier work, are pranks that anybody could pull off if they just had the will. With this in mind, what advice do you have for the kids?

JS: This is an insulting statement, you asshole. It's not just the will. It's imagination. Oops. I just slipped into my role as proctologist. Sorry.



The Art of the Con:

A notorious prankster uses hoaxes to expose the media

By Joey Skaggs

Extra!

March/April, 1999


We're living in a time when it seems everything we see on the news is a bad joke: President Clinton and impeachment, Y2K and the end of the world, Viagra raising the dead, cloning your dead pet dog.

So how can a conscientious media prankster make a mark? When reality gets this strange, pranks are needed more than ever to jolt us into reexamining our values.

With the Internet's immediacy, its availability to anyone wishing to plant an idea, service or product for the world to consume, there's more opportunity than ever for both pranks and scams. Anyone can send an e-mail, create a rumor on Usenet, make a website and look official with very little effort or cost.

To me the prank is fine art. I use the immediacy of the news media as my medium. The gullibility of the media and the vulnerability of the public help me to communicate my ideas to a large audience. When I perpetrate a hoax I get media attention. I use that attention to express thoughts on issues I feel are important.

When I package a satire into a funny, sexually suggestive, controversial or highly technical wrapping, the media tend to fall for it hook, line and sinker. That's because I'm basically giving them what they want. A provocative story with great visuals that's outrageous yet plausible: A cathouse for dogs where you can get your dog sexually gratified for $50; a portable confessional booth offering religion on the move for people on the go; an auction for celebrity sperm.

Why are my pranks--or any pranks, really--successful? I believe we are all predisposed to be conned. As children, we are conned into behaving. Then we are conned into believing. The Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the bogeyman occupy a great amount of our consciousness. Then there is religious training, lessons of morality that require great leaps of faith.

The bottom line is, we're taught to suspend critical thinking and analysis and to believe what we're told. So we grow up conning ourselves as we look for answers to unanswerable questions and miracle cures for all of our ills. And, with the help of a less-than-responsible press whose corporate bottom line frequently overrides sound journalistic judgment, we believe just about anything we see in the news.

Pranks vs. scams

For the most part, the kind of pranks that are being perpetrated via the mainstream news media and on the Internet are as shallow and vapid as the reality that surrounds us, or are outright scams for money. Take "ourfirsttime.com," for example, a site mounted in July 1998 to promote two teenagers who were planning to lose their virginity with each other live online. It could have been a brilliant hoax--a great satire about our excessive fascination with the prurient and with voyeurism.

But it was a totally transparent scam for money. There were never any virgins who were going to consummate their relationship on line. There was just a plan to collect $5 per visit from hundreds of thousands of curious net surfers for weeks leading up to the great day. In other words, it wasn't a prank at all. Yes, it was a media manipulation. But its purpose was to rip off the vulnerable public it could have so beautifully satirized.

The media love this type of scam because they can righteously put it down, meanwhile sideswiping serious media activists, satirists and culture jammers who get lumped in with the scammers and con artists. The mainstream media do not want to differentiate between the two. They prefer to put down any attack on their credibility. Typically, they trivialize or ignore the intent of the media activist because acknowledging that they have been irresponsible or shallow undermines their credibility.

A good prank, however, attempts to shed light on an issue and to create social change. It is the manipulation of ideas and emotions in order to shift focus onto otherwise hidden agendas or social injustices. Using elements of truth, irony, humor and satire, a good prank is meant to target closed-mindedness, prejudice, hatred and unquestioning thinking. It deconstructs the status quo. It attacks the misuse of power by media, government, business and religion. A good prank is a smoke and mirror illusion that can change people's perceptions and make them realize that most of their reality is--smoke and mirrors.

I get e-mail every single day from wannabe pranksters, narcissists and revenge seekers. Electronic graffiti artists. They reach out to me as if I was the "Dear Abby" of pranks. They solicit my counsel on how to avenge a boss, humiliate a big brother or embarrass an irritating friend.

Sometimes I write back politely explaining that this is not the nature of my work. I'm not into meaningless stupid vicious vindictive acts of rage against people or institutions. Nor am I interested in delusional people who confuse their lack of conscience with some tweaked concept of anarchy, pulling off the equivalent of the burning-bag-of-poop-at-the-door trick on the Internet (i.e., the plethora of computer viruses). I challenge hoaxers to do something more meaningful, something that will rock the status quo.

Pranks have always been culturally important to society. And as our reality becomes more and more bizarre and seemingly less meaningful it's more important than ever that effective pranks be perpetrated. So here's to bigger and better pranks that attempt to affect positive change. We have to be able to look at ourselves and laugh.

Joey Skaggs' hoaxes have been misreported as fact by such news outlets as the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Wall Street Journal, AP, UPI, Reuters, Scripps Howard, Knight Ridder, U.S. News and World Report, Ms., New York, People, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC. Skaggs is also a media consultant, college instructor, international lecturer on culture-jamming and media activism, and a fine arts painter and sculptor. He is, of course, working on another hoax.

Sidebar: They Fell for Them All

* Hippie Bus Tour to Queens (1968)

To satirize the busloads of tourists who came to the East Village to gawk at the hippies, Joey Skaggs rented a Greyhound sight-seeing bus and took sixty bearded, beaded, camera-toting hippies on a tour of suburban Queens. He called it his "Cultural Exchange Tour."

* Cathouse for Dogs (1976)

A bordello for canines, a place to get your dog sexually gratified without the threat of pregnancy, staged for the media by supposed promoter Joey Skaggs, set off the media's mojo.

* Celebrity Sperm Bank Auction (1976)

Giuseppe Scaggoli (a.k.a. Joey Skaggs) created the Celebrity Sperm Bank. Unfortunately, the night before the first auction of celebrity sperm, the sperm was mysteriously stolen. So the auction was replaced by a press conference, and the Celebrity Sperm Bank was widely reported as a thriving new and controversial business by numerous print, television and radio media.

* Metamorphosis - Cockroach Vitamin Pill (1981)

"Roaches have been around for 350 million years," said entomologist Dr. Josef Gregor (a.k.a. Joey Skaggs). "They'll survive a nuclear holocaust. We have much to learn from them." Gregor, leader of a group called Metamorphosis, had bred a super strain of cockroaches, extracted their hormones, and made a cockroach vitamin pill which he said cured arthritis, acne, anemia and menstrual cramps--as well as making one invulnerable to high doses of nuclear radiation.

* WALK RIGHT! (1984)

"The Guardian Angels have the subways, we want the streets." So said Joseph Virgil Skaggs (a.k.a. Joey Skaggs), street vigilante, who, with his gang of black-clad commandos wearing WALK RIGHT! sweatshirts, patrolled the streets to get signatures on a petition to institute 66 rules of street etiquette. In a case of life imitating art, many of Guardian Angels' founder Curtis Sliwa's tales of heroism turned out to be made up.

* The Fat Squad (1986)

"You can hire us but you cannot fire us. Our commandos take no bribes." That was the motto of Joe Bones (a.k.a. Joey Skaggs), ex-U.S. Marine drill sergeant, and founder of the Fat Squad, an organization created to rub out fat. Clients signed a contract to allow Bones' calorie cops to physically restrain them--whether on a date, at the job or at night in the bedroom--from breaking their diets.

* Portofess (1992)

A life-size confession booth on wheels, pedaled up 8th Avenue in New York to the 1992 Democratic convention, caused a media sensation. Skaggs was unrepentant.

* SEXONIX (1993)

In 1993, Joseph Skaggs, Ph.D. (a.k.a. Joey Skaggs), artificial intelligence computer scientist specializing in the field of virtual reality, reported he had perfected the world's first sexual virtual reality apparatus. However, his plans to demonstrate it at an invention and gift show in Toronto were waylaid when the equipment was confiscated at the Canadian border by puritanical customs agents. But Dr. Skaggs was not deterred. As he said to the media, "Machinery may be put under lock and key, but the people's dreams may not." Skaggs took the ruse to cyberspace where the rest of the story played out.

* The Solomon Project (1996)

Do you believe that the judicial system is a joke? That there is no such thing as "equal justice for all"? That the courts are biased and racist? Dr. Joseph Bonuso (a.k.a. Joey Skaggs) created a solution. Working with over 150 scientists, judges and attorneys for over seven years, Dr. Bonuso and his team created the Solomon Project, a series of supercomputers which could render civil and criminal decisions with great speed, low cost and no prejudice, guaranteeing equal justice for all.



Topic: www.ourfirsttime.com



The Washington Times, July 15, 1998

Skaggs rants on www.ourfirsttime.com, CWD and Shift, July 16, 1998

Skaggs' follow-up rant on ourfirsttime.com, Shift, July 20, 1998

The New York Post, July 20, 1998

MSNBC, July 21, 1998

Salon, July 22, 1998

The Village Voice, July 22, 1998


The Washington Times, July 15, 1998 (This article does not appear on the Internet so it is reproduced here)

Cyberspectacle raises eyebrows, questions
By Jennifer Harper

Diane and Mike just want to share something beautiful, they say. And it's all in the name of education.

The two teen-agers say they are going to lose their virginity "live" on the Internet. The public only needs to visit their Web site (www.ourfirsttime.com) on Aug. 4 as the pair make "their statement of love" before a video camera hooked up to a computer.

The Web site is slickly packaged and layered with intrigue.

There's a misty logo featuring a couple hugging at sunset and intertwined male and female symbols. There's a discussion group, a public poll and photos of bikini-clad Diane and hunky Mike, who dangles his feet in a pool.

"They are as close to being 'typical All-American kids' as you can get," advises the site, which opened for business on Saturday. "They are about to leave the safety of youth...and take that frightening but wonderful step into adult sexuality."

The world will be the witness, the site explains, and "Internet history will be made!"

There is much virtuous ado in a disclaimer, which said the site itself has no commercial sponsor, no entrance fee and that its aim is "about education, freedom and the power of choices."

It also complains that "individuals and religious groups" have been trying to shut down the site by bombarding it with junk e-mail, although nobody seemed to be taking any public credit for such activity as of yesterday.

Yet for all the hype and titillation, the carefully crafted site features a 1998 copyright and a media contact. Diane and Mike also have an attorney.

Los Angeles-based Mark Vega said the Web site's content would be "as grass-roots and intimate as possible" but would not reveal the last names or hometowns of the two lovebirds.

Which is part of the appeal of such goings-on. Dr. Carole Liberman, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and an authority on the impact of haywire media on the public consciousness, says reality TV has given way to an appetite for "unpolished, unpredictable reality that can edge into voyeurism."

Indeed, JenniCam, one of the most popular Web sites in the world, simply features live video from a young woman's apartment, 24 hours a day. Last month, a woman gave birth "live" on the Internet from a Florida hospital. LSD guru Timothy Leary tried but failed to share his own death on the Net in 1996.

It's all part of what has come to be known as "webcam" culture. But some folks smell a rat.

"I want to know what they're selling," said Joey Skaggs, a Manhattan-based media prankster whose complicated hoaxes are so flawless that he has even fooled mighty CNN and other news organizations into believing he ran a celebrity sperm bank or a portable Catholic confessional booth on wheels, among other things.

"This virginity Web site is too sophisticated and tactical to be anything other than a hoax," Mr. Skaggs said. "These people have created a controversy, gotten the media's attention and pulled off the prank. It's classic."

The Web site gets daily updates. The discussion group area is typical Internet fare -- a mix of the legitimate and outrageous. An on-line poll of 200 visitors found half who felt Diane and Mike set a "good example" for other teens, 55 percent who do not feel that the pair is "religiously offensive" and 61 percent who agree it's OK to show this stuff on the Internet.

"So what's next, an abortion on the Internet?" asked Mr. Skaggs. "A colonoscopy? This is really just porn."



Cartoon on Joey Skaggs

From The Big Book of Hoaxes
PDF Print Version
Get Adobe Acrobat

By Steve Vance & Joe Staton

Published by Paradox Press, 1996



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

The Phoenix

September, 1996


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 cafe, 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 faade. 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.

©1996 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.










Fade to Black Comedy Magazine interview with Joey Skaggs



© 1997-2007 Joey Skaggs