Our Own Smarty-pants

Yes, last week's "exclusive" was a ruse, but it still fooled a few cops and reporters

This is my second and last newspaper article. That's because I, Greg O'Shube, am entirely made up, as was every fact and detail of my first article. It appeared in last week's edition of New Times ("Anarchy in a Briefcase," November 20), claiming that antiglobalization anarchists were planning a major skirmish locally. The protesters were to infiltrate the Republican Governor's Association meeting last week in Boca Raton and cause a disruption so severe it would unravel the conference, we claimed. The meeting actually went as smoothly as a joint Republican-NRA luncheon. But the story was still enough to send a few reporters and editors scrambling to follow it and to sic police dogs on at least one of the visiting governors.

It'd be easy to say this story is about some bigger issue, like the fact that reporters all too often base stories on e-mails and websites, with little actual reporting. Or perhaps it was about the overblown security these days and the hyped-up media coverage that preceded the Free Trade of the Americas summit, which actually had as much excitement as a David Lee Roth reunion concert. But, hell, what it really was about was simply pulling one over on smarty-pants scribes and TV reporters.

The hoax story might not have been enough to persuade skeptical newsmen of South Florida to bite, so I took some extreme measures. Figuring TV reporters are more gullible, I faxed the story their way and sent it as well to authorities, including Gov. Jeb Bush's press office. In addition, the article mentioned a fake website for the group, Anarchists for a Better State (anarchistsforabetterstate.4t.com), supposedly responsible for the infiltration. The website referred the inquisitive to a recently created e-mail account and a cell phone number for the fake group's leader, Michael Bakunin.

Gov. Bush (left, at the conference, along with Ohio's Gov. Bob Taft) was not amused.
AP World Wide
Gov. Bush (left, at the conference, along with Ohio's Gov. Bob Taft) was not amused.

That brings us to the first of many clues in this not-so-elaborate hoax. Bakunin, for those with no ability to do a Google search, was actually a hero of the anarchist movement born in 19th-century Russia. The group's name, Anarchists for a Better State, is itself an oxymoron. And the website was chock full of clues, including a "media reports" page with bogus articles that could easily have been sniffed out.

But every reporter loves a good story, no matter how un-freakin'-believable it sounds. The first of dozens of calls to Bakunin's cell phone last week was from Jennifer Peltz, a Sun-Sentinel reporter. She left Bakunin a message at 3:03 p.m. Wednesday, oddly even before the story hit newsstands that night. Perhaps the supposedly gullible TV reporters spread the word. "I gather you know our paper well," said the Yale-educated Peltz. Surely, her news instinct had latched on to the protesters' plans to sneak live rodents into the conference and steal the governors' suits from their hotel rooms, replacing them with rags. "I am interested in talking about the RGA convention, of course."

Next came Palm Beach Post reporter John Murawski, who was captivated by the story's claims that I, Greg O'Shube, had infiltrated the headquarters of Anarchists for a Better State. The story claimed the group was housed in a former Taco Bell building in West Palm Beach. "This is a message for Michael Bakunin," Murawski said on Bakunin's voice mail at 4:29 p.m. Wednesday. He called the tale "fascinating reading" but also revealed his newspaper-bred skepticism. "I just read this story here in, uh, the New Times about your, uh... This is like a bizarre story. It seems unbelievable, but give me a call and let me know if you can talk about it."

Then the bogus Bakunin went to work. He dashed off an e-mail to Peltz, Murawski, and Price Patton, the Post's unsuspecting bureau chief in Delray Beach. The e-mails offered the reporters a quote: "There are clouds over our city today that will not be there in a fortnight. There are clouds that turn from gray to yellow to red, but before they can turn to blue, they must be black for a time, until the sun rises on a new horizon." And using a bit of reverse psychology, Bakunin urged Patton to hold off running a story out of fear of alerting authorities. Yeah, just try to tell an editor what to do; even fictitious reporters know that doesn't work. "Sorry. We have a story for tomorrow," Patton replied. "The New Times wrote about your group, and the police have responded to our requests for reaction to it. If you care to comment, you can send it along to me."

Just what happened to the Post's story isn't clear (neither Patton nor Murawski returned phone calls for comment), but the article didn't run the next day. Neither did any kind of preview story for the Republican convention, suggesting that a higher-up editor sniffed out the falsities and canned the story late Wednesday night. On Thursday, Murawski showed his dogged style. He left several messages for New Times editors and reporters, saying he had "to follow up this story because the Boca police and FBI went around town chasing all these leads." Finally, getting through to one editor who claimed recent-vacation ignorance, Murawski asked, "Is this story real?" Then he showed the gag was starting to unravel. "This guy Greg O'Shube -- he's not in your database, you know. He hasn't done any other stories for you. Move the letters in his name around and it spells George Bush..." (Yes, we tried Jeb Bush, but no one's going to believe the name Sheb Jub.)

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