Mainstream Press Buys Contrived Story Hook, Line and Sinker.
In April of 1844, Edgar Allen Poe was down to his last $4.50 with which to maintain an ailing wife, an elderly mother and a nasty alcohol and laudanum habit. In desperate need of cash, the literary genius concocted a preposterous story of a trans-Atlantic balloon flight, from North Wales to Ft. Moultrie, S.C., and sold it to the rambunctious and circulation-hungry New York Sun.
Never mind that the first successful attempt at such a voyage did not occur until 1978. According to Steve Goldman’s “The Great Balloon Hoax” (from the History Buff’s Home Page, www.historybuff.com), the Sun and its competitors “desired to be the first on the street with up-to-the-minute news. This was in the era before the telegraph and the main source of hot news was a correspondent with an in or a rapid mode of travel. Accuracy was to be sacrificed for speed. Get the story and worry about truthfulness later.” (emphasis added).
The Great Yuppie Rights Rally Hoax, perpetrated early this month by New Times’ SF Weekly, demonstrated that little has changed in 155 years. What began as what editor John Mecklin described as “a little light fun” metamorphosed into a multi-tiered jape that left the mainstream press in San Francisco looking gullible, mindless and entirely willing to sacrifice accuracy for expediency.
Gentrification of working-class neighborhoods is a hot-button issue in any city, but in San Francisco, The City That Forgot the Sixties Are Over, the reaction to an influx of well-heeled professionals into the Mission District has taken on the trappings of guerrilla resistance. An outfit calling itself the “Yuppie Eradication Project”, whose exploits have been chronicled at length by SF Weekly, has advocated selective vandalizing of business and properties and harassment of individuals deemed offensive to honest, proletarian mores. The sport utility vehicle, live-work lofts and people conversing on cellular telephones seem to particularly enrage the activists, allegedly masterminded by one Kevin Keating, identified by the daily Chronicle as a “struggling writer” and currently facing alliterative charges of making malicious mischief and terrorist threats.
Keating would appear to be a screwball in the best tradition. YEP flyers credited to a Nestor Makhno (in real life a Ukrainian terrorist — police and press believe this to be Keating’s nom de guerre) call for protesters to “Be Creative. Take Action. Don’t Get Caught.”
Among the more egregiously illegal actions attributed to the YEPers was the marring by graffiti of several live-work lofts, whose owners felt that SF Weekly’s coverage of the YEP was encouraging fresh outrages, and who used the term “hate crime” to describe the situation.
Enter John Mecklin. “The sudden appearance of groups of citizens behaving preposterously tapped like a professionally wielded hammer against my sarcasm reflex. Here was a real opportunity. What if, I thought, we ran a phony advertisement, calling on San Franciscans peaceably to assemble to protect the endangered rights of yuppies living in the Mission? If we could trick San Franciscans into demonstrating against ‘hate crimes’ inflicted on yuppies, wouldn’t that prove San Franciscans will demonstrate about anything?”
And thus was born The Great Yuppie Rights Rally Hoax, pitting the forces of YEP and YUP against one another in a gargantuan struggle for the soul of a great metropolitan city.
The ad appeared in the June 2-8 SF Weekly and to Mecklin’s growing astonishment, it was taken seriously, not only by the general public but by the mainstream press — in particular, the San Francisco Examiner. There were numerous indications that something was not quite right about the ad: the names of supporting groups were markedly silly, including the Safe Parking for Utility Vehicles Working Group and the Live-Work Owners Fairness Team (LOFT), and calls to the number provided only reached a tape recording of the mysterious (and non-existent ) “Bradley”, the supposed rally organizer.
But at the Examiner, reporter Emily Gurnon needed a counterpoint for her Friday, June 4 front page story on the tensions in the Mission. And understandably so. Here was a fresh twist on what had become a tired tale. Yuppies aren’t known for organizing; they typically move in, buy everything in sight, and then holler for the cops to keep undesirables out.
Transcripts from the messages left for Bradley were posted post-prank on SF Weekly’s web site, and among them were five from Gurnon anxiously requesting a word or two with Bradley and referring to an ever-approaching deadline.
To stall Gurnon, the plotters left her a voice mail message at an absurd hour because, as Mecklin put it in his mea culpa-but-ha ha, “we wanted her to keep nibbling at our baited hook — but we did not think we could risk an actual interview.” So on the morning of Friday, June 4, the story appeared on page one of the Examiner adorned with the headlines: “Fed-Up Yups take on Mission hostility; Targeted residents, merchants plan rally against ‘hate crimes'”.
For her part, Gurnon said she had suspicions. “Certainly questions were raised,” especially when the Examiner’s regular development reporter did not recognize the names of the spurious sponsors. She speculated that perhaps Bradley was a political novice in over his head, and “had gotten scared and decided to bag the whole thing.” (The venomous nature of some of the messages left for Bradley add to the plausibility of this scenario.)
But ultimately the story ran. Gurnon remarked, somewhat ruefully, “Well, what are you going to do – not cover it?”
The lack of verification apparently didn’t trouble Metro editor Dick Rogers, who allowed this paragraph to run in full finessing glory: “Organizers could not be reached for comment. But an answering machine at the phone number listed in its publicity urged ‘If you’re tired of being insulted and terrorized just because you own property and drive a nice car, then show your support for a stronger Mission by coming to our rally Sunday…'”
In Ray Delgado’s June 8 Examiner post-mortem, Rogers said “the Examiner saw the advertisement for the rally, tried unsuccessfully to verify its authenticity and, in the process, reported two stories on legitimate gentrification struggles within the neighborhood.” Nice try, but the conclusion that Gurnon’s article lacked the latter half of the “ol’ one-two punch” without treating the rally as authentic is inescapable.
The messages left by members of the press for Bradley revealed other unflattering characteristics of San Francisco’s mainstream press. For instance:
The local Associated Press bureau is woefully undermanned, and the lone representative on duty Sunday, June 6 — the day of the “rally” — would have accepted whatever information given by Bradley uncritically.
An unnamed KGO radio reporter delivered an atrocious suck-up pitch to Bradley, mentioning his station’s “reach” and adding “we always get a big response.”
As late as Tuesday, June 8, Examiner columnist Stephanie Salter still exhibited confusion as to the motive and people behind the bogus rally: “Whoever is behind the Yuppie Eradication Project in the Mission — I hear you; I sympathize. Sunday’s sarcastic ‘pro-yuppie’ rally in Dolores Park was exactly the kind of guerrilla theater that draws attention to an issue and serves as an effective public put-down” (from a column that ran in the same paper as Delgado’s “SF Weekly admits it duped media”).
Mecklin was pleased and bemused at the success of the prank. “It’s been a puzzle to me. We thought we had set it up so that anybody paying attention would go ‘Whaaat?'” As to the outlandish names of the affiliated groups, he said, “Groups here are so weird that this seems normal.”
Was the hoax too effective? Perhaps, thinks Mecklin. “People are telling me this wasn’t a good prank, because ‘anybody would believe it.'” (Especially anybody who works in the San Francisco press.) More pranks are not currently planned, but Mecklin is keeping his options open. “It’s part of our shtick…the idea is not only to be funny but to say something you couldn’t say any other way.” Namely, that relying on press releases and other unverified sources is widespread, and “a staple of stupid American journalism.”
Gurnon, the primary prankee, cheerfully admitted she’d been had, and echoed Mecklin’s thought: “This is San Francisco. Politics are so weird that the rally was not easily dismissable.”
And from the “No Such Thing as Bad Publicity” department, R.J. Brown, editor of the History Buff’s Home Page, notes that in the case of the mid-19th century New York Sun, “when the hoax(es) were exposed people were generally amused. It did not seem to lessen interest in the Sun, which never lost its increased circulation.”
For more on the hoax, go to http://www.sfweekly.com/archives/1998/060999/mecklin1.html