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.
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.)
Murawski wasn't kidding about the cops. Boca Raton Police Department spokesman Jeff Kelly confirmed that his guys were looking for the alleged anarchist infiltrators. "We have our intelligence out, but we're not going to say what we've got," Kelly said coyly. "But we are aware of it." However, Kelly revealed that Peltz had told him the story was a gag. "How fictitious is it?" he asked.
At 11 a.m. Thursday, the first and only TV reporter to bite called New Times and asked for yours truly. So one of the editors pretended to be Greg O'Shube to answer questions from Elliot Cohen of Eyewitness News 25 in Palm Beach Gardens. Cohen said he wanted O'Shube to sit for an interview: "For television purposes, we need someone on camera to talk about it." The fake O'Shube offered to give Cohen the number for Bakunin, but Cohen wanted it easier than that. "Of course, we could go and talk to the principles, and we will attempt to do that, but we also want to talk about the article. Don't you want to talk about your story?" O'Shube declined. "Then never mind," Cohen said. "We'll just move on to another story. Thank you very much."
In the midst of all that media hoopla, Anarchists for a Better State officially got its first potential member. Carl Dickinson sent an e-mail to Bakunin's address offering help: "I hate those fucking republicans,,, thhat [sic] republican government killed my cousin in Iraq. What can I do to help in Boca Raton Beach Resort." Bakunin replied that, to be considered for membership, Dickinson would need to submit a detailed autobiography accompanied by a lengthy essay detailing his feelings on the subject of anarchy. So far, Dickinson hasn't replied.
As the governors' conference began Thursday, the security was evident everywhere, from bomb-sniffing dogs at the entrances to the Boca Raton Resort & Club to the dozens -- was it hundreds? -- of suited security guys, all with matching red and yellow lapel pins. Authorities wouldn't say how much, if any, of that security was to blame on the hoax, but the story had at least one effect inside the conference. The article claimed anarchists had obtained credentials for reporters and those attending the conference, including a pass for Nancy Murkowski, wife of Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski. Around 7 p.m. on Thursday, three cops being tugged by leashed dogs burst into Murkowski's hotel room shortly after he had stepped out of the shower. "They had flak suits and the dogs and the whole bit," the governor said during a break in the conference on Friday. "Scared the heck out of me and Nancy, but luckily they didn't see anything suspicious. We got our passes OK, but I guess they thought someone else had gotten them."
By Friday afternoon, the gag was sprung, since no cockroaches were released in the halls, as the story promised. Gov. Bush even criticized the way the media drummed up the number of protesters expected at the conference. "I don't think the anarchists found their way up I-95," Bush said.
And just when it seemed no one else would buy the ruse, Miami Herald reporter Noah Bierman called a New Times editor on Friday afternoon. He said the bogus story was copied onto the Herald's internal files and then Deputy City Editor Casey Frank told him to "see whether these guys are legit." Bierman, a savvy newsman, followed the order but sounded immediately skeptical. "The guy's name is funny," Bierman said of Bakunin. "That's a famous dead anarchist. And I looked into your database, and this is the only story by Greg O'Shube or about this group. Well, I called the number on the website and left a message. So feel free to ridicule me if you want."
Yes, Mr. Bierman. Yes, I think I will.