By: Joe Strupp
SF Weekly protest prank cons police and press
by Joe Strupp
In San Francisco, protests are as common as crab feeds on Fisherman’s Wharf. So when one of the city’s alternative newspapers recently promoted a rally to protest the plight of wealthy yuppies taking over the city’s working-class Mission District, few considered it unusual.
And when about 200 people showed up for the June 6 event with picket signs and bullhorns, local police and reporters treated the scene like any other protest in the city known for progressive activism and outspoken causes.
All in all, everything seemed normal.
Except that this protest was a fake. The entire event had been orchestrated by the alternative SF Weekly newspaper, which arranged the scam to show how the local press fails to check the facts of some stories.
“It was meant to hold up a mirror to San Francisco so that it can see itself a little better,” says John Mecklin, editor of SF Weekly, which is owned by New Times, Inc. “It wasn’t meant to hurt anyone.”
But the reaction from local news organizations that were duped by the hoax ? including the San Francisco Examiner, which ran a Page One advance days before the rally ? ranged from annoyance to anger when word spread that the event was a put-on.
Editors criticized the alternative’s joke as an unprofessional act, while journalism scholars say the stunt demeans the profession.
“It’s a dumb thing to do,” says Jerry Roberts, managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, which covered the protest as part of an overall story on Mission-District gentrification. “They need to decide what business they are in. If they are in the news business, they should be about the truth.”
Keith Woods, who teaches news ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., says any deception is out of place for a newspaper.
“There are things that are very clearly wrong here,” says Woods. “The organization damages its credibility by printing anything that is not true. It’s damage done with no real clear benefit.”
The stunt started with the June 2 issue of SF Weekly, one of two citywide alternative tabloids published each Wednesday. It included a false advertisement for an upcoming rally to protest “hate crimes” against wealthy professionals who have been moving into the Mission District in recent years.
The SF Weekly ad named a time and place for the rally, saying it was being organized by several groups, such as the Safe Parking for Utility Vehicles Working Group and Live-Work Owners’ Fairness Team, that turned out to be bogus. The item also included a phone number to call for more information, which connected callers to an SF Weekly answering machine with a message from one of the newspaper’s associate editors portraying himself as an organizer.
“It was meant to show how knee-jerk and press-release-driven the mainstream media is here,” Mecklin says. “Anyone with a J-school education could have figured
out that this was a prank if they just checked it out.”
As the false protest date approached, Mecklin says he was sure that someone would figure out the hoax, but the media continued to advance the story. The Examiner ran a Page One preview of the rally June 4, and KGO Radio conducted a live interview June 5 with SF Weekly associate editor David Pasztor, posing as a protest organizer.
On the date of the protest, the event received coverage from both the Chronicle and Examiner, as well as several radio and TV stations, although the Examiner’s story hinted that the event might have been staged. On June 7, SF Weekly admitted its prank on its Web site (www.sfweekly.com).
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http:www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher June 12, 1999) [Caption]