Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I Punk’d Scott Walker

I Punk’d Scott Walker

And now he’s lying about it.

I never thought Scott Walker’s people would be dumb enough to put me through. It was February 2011—the height of the Wisconsin governor’s battle with the public unions, with thousands of protesters filling the streets of downtown Madison—when I called his office posing as Tea Party sugar daddy David Koch.
I told Keith Gilkes, who was then Walker’s chief of staff, that the governor couldn’t return my call because “my goddamn maid, Maria, put my phone in the washer. I’d have her deported, but she works for next to nothing.” (In reality, I was calling with a free Skype number and couldn’t receive calls from a land line at the time.)
In my business, that’s called tipping your hand. All ethical liars do it. It’s the ridiculous, implausible hints that separate the ethical prankster from the confidence man, the satirist from the unrepentant political hack. But they didn’t get the joke, and soon Walker and I were comparing notes on how he could break the backs of those pro-union demonstrators.
On Tuesday, Walker unleashes an epic gag of his own, the book Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge. Aimed at duping future historians and contemporary wonks, the 255 pages of political PR—co-authored by former Dubya speechwriter Marc Thiessen—read at times more like Stalin than Sacha Baron Cohen, given their sheer propaganda quotient. But some passages are pretty funny, like the chapter where he says my prank call—which I recorded and posted on YouTube, much to the governor’s dismay and embarrassment at the time—was all part of God’s plan to teach him humility.
If anything, the lesson of Unintimidated seems to be that God is terrible at teaching humility.
I had no idea whether Koch and Walker had spoken before, but it was plausible that Koch would call the governor. Americans for Prosperity—the conservative advocacy group Koch founded with his brother Charles—had thrown millions of hard-to-track dollars into pro-Walker advertising and was presently “standing with Walker” via an expensive PR blitz.
I expected Gilkes to question why Koch would personally call the number on their website, suffering through busy signals and endless ringing like a common plebe, and then cavalierly trashing his undocumented maid. “I’m calling from the VOID—with the VOID, or whatever it’s called,” I said, thinking I’d strained credulity too far. “You know, the Snype!” But Gilkes just laughed and told me to call back at 2.
At the appointed hour, Walker and I enjoyed a friendly chat during which I suggested that he physically intimidate his Democratic opposition with a baseball bat, whip up a good counter-protest by dressing hobos in suits and most disturbing: that he ought to plant troublemakers to discredit the pro-union demonstrators.
“[W]e thought about that,” Walker replied, and eventually added, “My only fear would be if there’s a ruckus caused is that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has to settle to avoid all these problems.” So it wasn’t morality, but a cynical calculation, that saved the public from that particular ruse.
My most successful gag before the call to Walker had been covering the grand opening of Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum” as a reporter afflicted with “Asperger’s Syndrome By Proxy.” An associate and I set up a fake news website called the Special Times, wherein my alter ego professed his abiding love for cookies, the Transformers, investigative reporting and Our Lord Jesus Christ—daring Ham’s PR hacks to catch on. But the people who believe the universe was pulled from God’s magical arse 6,000 years ago never got wise. Go figure. And I ended up in their midst, clad in sweatpants, Velcro sneakers and fanny pack, crudely mocking everything they consider sacred.
I learned the pranksters’ code—giving the mark a sporting chance—from Matt Taibbi. Before becoming Rolling Stone’s resident scourge of Wall Street, Taibbi founded a biweekly rag in Buffalo, my hometown, called the BEAST. He abandoned the project before I came aboard as a delivery boy. It took me nearly a decade to claw my way to editor-in-chief. Only recently did I step down to spend less time with my family. But the BEAST ethic will always guide me. Its inaugural issue back in 2002 featured a prank involving Buffalo’s then-Mayor Anthony Masiello accepting a poetic, gangster-fraternizing cameo in an episode of The Sopranos. The tell came in the form of a purported HBO producer’s promise to send Masiello a porcelain unicorn signed by James Spader. A highly amusing plan.
The Koch call, though, was totally on the fly. No plan. No chance of success, I thought. I’d been awake for more than 24 hours, delirious, chasing my coffee with scotch and fairly stoned. My only preparation was to scrawl “Coke” on a scrap of paper. On the infinitesimal chance I got through as David Koch, I figured the guy should correctly pronounce his own name.
In Unintimidated, Walker says he took the call “after a week or more of insistent pleas” from his staff. False. I called three times in less than three hours.
Walker also writes, “we never—never—considered putting ‘troublemakers’ in the crowd to discredit the protesters.” He now says in his book that he fibbed to appease the co-owner of Koch Industries, parent company to Georgia Pacific Corp., which employs more than 2,000 people in its Green Bay mills. Decent yet disturbing spin. But when the news broke, Walker simply told the local media, “As you’ve heard on the tape, we dismissed that and said that wasn’t a good idea.” It was the same weak talking point he trotted out on Meet the Press. And David Gregory—renowned vanilla sasquatch of the mythological “objective media”—had zero follow-ups, allowing Walker to pivot unchallenged to the “real issue” of the 14 Democratic state senators who’d fled Wisconsin to avoid a GOP quorum.
In fact, it was one of those senators, Tim Carpenter, who’d provided the inspiration for the prank. “He’s just hard-lined—will not talk,” he told Amanda Terkel at the Huffington Post, “will not communicate, will not return phone calls.” Who would Walker talk to, I wondered? My first idea was to pose as Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, who was in the midst of a mass sit-in of his own. I imagined it as a sort of dictator heart-to-heart. But after three hours of practicing the accent, I still sounded like Borat, not Mubarak, so I gave up and posed as Koch instead.
At a press conference after the story broke, Walker said, “The bottom line is the things I’ve said are the things I’ve said publicly all along.” Much to my astonishment, variations of that blatant lie appeared in headlines without reporters calling bullshit.
Journalists rarely invent the lie, though that does happen (see: Armstrong Williams, Stephen Glass, etc.), but often unwittingly pass it along. “There’s a whole industry, the public relations industry, that’s all about getting lies into the media—and they never reveal the hoax,” says the pseudonymous Andy Bichlbaum of America’s preeminent prank troupe the Yes Men. “They’ve sold wars (see Counterfeit Coverage), our deaths (tobacco), and now the death of the whole planet, starting with those who live in the poorest countries.”
Countering lies sometimes requires more lies. In other words, putting truth into the mouths of liars. That’s the Yes Men’s M.O. Their entire shtick is about giving the marks a sporting chance—trawling reporters with over-the-top absurd fake websites and press conferences. (I stole from their playbook when I ran for Congress in 2011, and realized my Republican opponent had not registered her own .org. Bwahaha.)
I became aware of the Yes Men in 2004 when, on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, Bichlbaum appeared on BBC World News posing as a Dow Chemical spokesperson to accept full responsibility for the tragic Indian gas leak that caused thousands of deaths and countless injuries. “Our shareholders may take a bit of a hit,” Birchlbaum told BBC after announcing $12 billion in victim compensation. “But I think if they’re anything like me they will be ecstatic to be part of such a historic occasion of doing right by those we have wronged.”
Since then, the Yes Men have pulled numerous successful media hoaxes to satirically poignant effect—Halliburton’s SurvivaBall to protect the on-the-go businessman from any post-apocalyptic hellscape, Dow’s “Acceptable Risk” death calculator and posing as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to announce the consortium’s noble 180 on climate change, to name just a few.
One of the Yes Men’s best coups was a two-pronged jape aimed at Shell Oil. I teamed up with them for this one. The first prong, a video of a launch party for a new Shell website—during which a miniature liquor-dispensing oil rig sprung an unstoppable leak—blew up the Internet. The second prong, the site itself, ArcticReady.com, offered an interactive function where users generated captions for images of pristine Arctic wilderness and wildlife, sharing them on social media. One example featured an Arctic fox that read: “YOU CAN’T RUN YOUR SUV ON ‘CUTE’. LET’S GO.”
The press initially reported both prongs as massive PR blunders. Business reporters were apoplectic. How could Shell be so dumb? As the man behind the official Twitter account for the fake Shell, I wrote tweets about being drunk and spilling coffee. By the time most journalists caught on, the “damage” was already done. We’d gotten our message across: Drilling for oil in the Arctic is inherently unsafe, a tragedy waiting to happen, not even factoring the release of heat-trapping carbon into Earth’s finite greenhouse. And we had gotten people talking about it in appropriately worried tones.
Birchlbaum once told me that the journalists they dupe usually don’t mind. I suspect that’s because pranksters can force journalists to cover stories they otherwise wouldn’t—or couldn’t—in their capacity as “respected” news people. But I’ve always thought of my pranks as a funny kind of undercover work.
James O’Keefe, the notorious fake pimp who killed the low-income advocacy and organizing group ACORN, doesn’t agree with me on that point. “There is a big difference between pranks and undercover investigative journalism,” he says. “I am and have never been interested in pranks for the sake of trickery or laughs. I am, however, committed to utilizing undercover investigative journalism to expose the truth and improve our society, the goal of most journalists, I believe.”
O’Keefe’s not a credible person. But I grudgingly respect him for his ability to get things done. Well, respect like I do Charles Manson. The undercover videos that led to ACORN’s downfall, wherein O’Keefe dressed as a—totally unfunny, apparently—pimp were deceptively edited, as is much of his work. He never talked to ACORN staffers dressed that way. And he ended having to pay $100,000 in damages to one ACORN worker for completely misrepresenting her as a pimp-loving criminal.
A little snip here, another there, and you can make an NPR executive call the Tea Party “xenophobic” just by leaving out the part where he attributed the description to Republicans he knew. That’s O’Keefe’s M.O. But I felt compelled to ask him some questions for this essay because that’s what I’m told journalists do. Sometimes undercover.
“Sometimes the only way to unearth dirty politicos’ fraud, and more, is to go incognito. This is a tradition with a long history that brings to life very important issues within society,” O’Keefe argues. “Nellie Bly and her famous investigation into mental health is just one example of many famous undercover journalists.”
Undercover reporting aside, the “objective” press asks a guy over here, a guy over there, and they rarely tell the news consumer the factual truth. It’s an institutional sickness. It wasn’t too long ago that the New York Times asked its readers: “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” Of course it should! That that was a serious question from the “paper of record” goes a long way to understand the coming end of civilization. “Credible scientist A says, ‘Our species is in serious trouble,’ but guy with undisclosed ties to Exxon and the Heartland Institute says, ‘Dude, chillax.’” You decide.
That every malfeasant public figure or PR hack has a valid opinion deserving equal weight next to empirically rooted reality is the deadliest jape of our era—pulling our politics further into the corporate shadows and poisoning our planet beyond repair.
Will God save us, like he did Walker? After taking his “beating” by the press, one of his “toughest days,” he turned to his devotional calendar, according to his new book. That day’s title: “The Power of Humility, the Burden of Pride.” He looked up and said, “I hear you Lord.” Whether that’s honest delusion or just pandering, and whether he truly believes targeting unions is anything other than a way to break the Democratic money base, the governor’s definitely fooling—or trying to fool—someone. And they call me the jokester.
Ian Murphy is a professional weirdo whose work has appeared at AlterNetSalonCrooks & Liars, the Daily BeastFree Inquiry and, most regularly, at the Progressive. Follow him on Twitter @Ian_Murphy.

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