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April Media Fools

You may not know media prankster Joey Skaggs but chances are you know his heirs: the Yes Men, the Newsbreakers and even Michael Moore.
 
 
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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 web site, 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, '60s-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 40 years ago, in 1966, "when he carried a 10-foot 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 50-foot bra across the steps of the U.S. Treasury on St. Valentine's Day to highlight the American male's obsession with female breasts. His premise was simple: he set out to ridicule the media façade, and the fallibility of the public's blind acceptance of the media, so he used the media as his medium."

A decade later, Skaggs placed a newspaper ad announcing the opening of a brothel for dogs ("A cat house for dogs featuring a savory selection of hot bitches"), complete with a media "photo-opportunity." One company received an Emmy nomination for its coverage of the event.

Another Skaggs piece involved the opening of a " Celebrity Sperm Bank," where Bob Dylan and The Beatles had allegedly left deposits. Then there was the made-up laboratory where Dr. Josef Gregor (aka Skaggs) bred a strain of cockroaches that produced hormones to cure illness and protect humans from radiation. In the competitive frenzy to report the new miracle drug, no one in the MSM noticed that the phony doctor's name evoked the main character in Kafka's The Metamorphosis , who turned from a human into a giant insect. And it's hard to forget the time Skaggs posed as the president of a Korean group called Kea So Joo and sent letters to shelters asking that unwanted dogs be sent to him to be used as food.

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.

This and other articles by Rory O'Connor are available on his blog.