Stalking the Slooflirpa
Just-the-facts attitude shelved for some on April Fools' Day
By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor
Readers of Columbus, Georgia's Ledger-Enquirer know well the slippery banks of the town's Chattahoochee River. Wet, murky...mysterious.
Yet they were shocked in the late-'80s when the paper reported that men fishing the river's depths were attacked by something--a fish, perhaps, but unlike any they'd seen before. The curator of the Columbus Museum analyzed a tooth embedded in their boat and confirmed it came from a mosasaur--a prehistoric creature with the toothy sneer of a crocodile and a shark's sleek, fast body. Indeed, declared the expert, Fred C. Fussell, this was an ancestor of the species slooflirpa.
Pandemonium. People ran to the river to catch a glimpse. They clogged phone lines of the paper and the museum. For the safety of the children, they wanted to put this slooflirpa down.
"The reaction to that story was phenomenal," says Richard Hyatt, then a columnist, now a staff writer at the paper. "People were saying, 'Yeah, yeah, I've seen that thing down on the river, late at night when I go down to the docks.' "
Or not. Cause, uh, the paper made the whole thing up--with the museum in cahoots. April Fools! Slooflirpa backwards!
Ah, gentle readers. The warning is out about the Ides of March. But ye should probably keep thy guard up through the Kalends of April--what the dusty Roman calendar calls the first of the month. Every April 1, media rapscallions set the trap; every year, the fools rush in.
Granted, every year some doth protest, straight-laced journalism types who say planting bogus stories among real ones doesn't do much for credibility. And inevitably plenty of people miss the punch lines. But reporters and broadcasters who celebrate Fools' Day like Christmas in April say most people laugh as hard as they do--eventually.
Red Herring Deputy Editor Blaise Zerega says readers definitely dig the tech magazine's annual prank--a tradition since 1997. Like last year. Mixed in with the magazine's repertoire of new economy reportage and next-big-thingisms was a piece on WaterNet, a Dutch startup that invented a way to route Internet data through water pipes. The profile quoted usual-sounding suspects including consultant Juan Man of The Man Group ("I've seen a demo and I'm not giving anything away by telling you that we downloaded a feature-length Dutch adult film in roughly five minutes with zero packet loss").
Of course the online version of the article linked to WaterNet's Web site--Red Herring readers expect links. A few clicks on the site--which got 50,000 hits in the first two weeks--led to a page that simply said: Guess what? We were just kidding. April Fools!
Still, not everyone got it. A thankful business professor wanted to distribute the story to colleagues and her MBA class. One enraged dupe e-mailed editors this, along with a death threat, after falling for the story: "Whoever wrote this probally [sic] thinks setting a bag of shit on fire on somebodys porch & running after ringing the door bell is also funny."
Perhaps. But Zerega says the pranks allow the gizmo-crazy, IPO-happy magazine to poke fun at itself while gently reminding readers to be skeptical of what looks too good to be true.
"It's a parody of these breathlessly positive, cheerleading-type stories," he says, pointing to the magazine's first hoax, a glowing profile of Xtrasoft, a company that did nothing. Editors cobbled the company description from amorphous mission statements of tech players like Netscape and Oracle. (One executive gushed, "The implementation has been seamless; it's totally scalable.... It's almost invisible to the end user.")
Inspiration for Red Herring and others was the famous--or infamous?--Sports Illustrated gag from 1985. The magazine featured rookie pitcher Sidd Finch, whose fastballs maxed out at 168 mph, compared to the previous record, 103 mph. And he had never even played baseball, instead studying in a Tibetan monastery. With news that Finch was mulling a contract with the Mets (it was either that or pursuing the French horn), fans bombarded the magazine wanting more on this sensation.
April trickery has become sure as the month's showers. In 2000 Esquire found that more than a few men, to get a free car, would willingly drive one with giant tampon ads on it: After a story hyping such a deal, readers called wanting to sign up. The Peoria Journal Star spun a column of fanciful political goings-on last year that ran on the op-ed page. A radio station in Denver reported in 2000 that a local mayor would be Al Gore's running mate. That same year the Big Bend Sentinel in West Texas revealed that Miller beer would sponsor the town of Marfa's trademark, the mysterious blinking Marfa Lights, which hereafter would be known as the "Miller Lites."
Common among successful media hoaxes is believability. Like the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast of "War of the Worlds" that had listeners running for cover, these gags are outlandish, sure, but they're told in the reporting style readers expect and they've got grains of truth, just enough.
Though the last thing National Public Radio wants is blood from a "War of the Worlds" on its hands, the show "All Things Considered" has played fools since the 1970s. The key, says Senior Producer Art Silverman, is aiming the humor at the "least clever person" listening. In other words--nothing mean, nothing slanderous and, for God's sake, nothing that would make anyone actually do something other than, of course, believe.
In 1999 the show took listeners to Paintersville, Ohio, to meet a guy who invented a gadget that translated a dog's barking. This "TV/VCR repairman-turned-inventor" demonstrated the device on his retriever, Gus. After Gus uttered something that sounded like, "woof, woof, woof," the translator found it to mean, "Gus not a bad dog." The year before, NPR reported that owners of the Boston Celtics were changing the pronunciation of the team name to the more Irish version with a hard "C" to lure an Ireland-obsessed 7-footer from Trinity College.
"It's a little bit more outrageous than real life," Silverman says. "We sort of take what's in the news and in culture and then take it one step further."
Such was the approach columnist George Hesselberg took last year in Madison's Wisconsin State Journal. The state lawmakers had been cracking down on public nudity while, unrelatedly, refurbishing the Capitol building. Hesselberg, combining the concepts, reported that lawmakers apportioned $300,000 for "covering bare breasts on statues and paintings in the state Capitol." (Sounds suspiciously like Attorney General John Ashcroft, who also prefers statues' breasts under wraps.) Statues with "nipples clearly visible" would be outfitted with cream-colored sports bras. In cases where a bra wouldn't fit, "for example where only one breast is exposed or if the statue is of a male figure or a horse," they'd sand away whatever was "suggestive."
"It was so believable," Hesselberg says, still on a post-joke high a year later. He had 'em until the last line, which included the name of a woman forming a coalition against uptight politicos--April F. Uhl. Unamused, however, was the paper's editor, Frank Denton. After hearing from an anxious reader who believed the story, Denton e-mailed Hesselberg, "April Fool's jokes in the newspaper almost always backfire, because (1) people often do not read to the end of even very good stories and (2) our credibility is so strong that people take us at our word."
Silverman says the reputation of NPR, quite credible 364 days of the year, survives its yearly indulgence, adding, "You don't go trick-or-treating every day." And Red Herring's Zerega says, "Does it have to be all business all the time? Do business magazines have to be staid and boring? Why not have fun--certainly on one day of the year."###