Defending April Fools

I’m a big fan of April Fools Day. Eugene can lay claim to the oxymoronic corporate headquarters of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, so we should celebrate April Fools Day vigorously. Should.
For ten years, I published a free newspaper in Eugene that pulled any leg long enough to touch the ground. You may remember it as the Comic News. It started as the Northwest Comic News, became the iN Town Comic News, changed its name briefly to the Randy Papé Comic News, and then ended as <wink>.
We celebrated April Fools Day with special editions. My staff would celebrate when it was over each year, because it was a large undertaking with no extra undertakers. In 1996, we parodied this fine newspaper, morphing the column portraits of featured columnists Don Bishoff and Karen McCowan. We “revealed” that these two were in fact one person, thus explaining why you never saw both of them in the same place.
Bishoff wrote me a note the next morning, complimenting and congratulating my staff for a job well done. Our springtime pranks got progressively more elaborate, culminating in 2003’s “First Annual Final Issue.” As with most good jokes, our threat to close was almost true. Months later, we did.
So I admired the Ems for fabricating a story last week that could have been true, but wasn’t. (A certain college quarterback had been recruited to pitch for the Ems.) Television news ran with the story. This newspaper did not.
Most of my colleagues in the news business thought the Ems crossed the line, and they’re probably right. Alan Beck told me this: “I thought it was funny, but they made a mistake. They shouldn’t have lied when reporters called to verify the story.” As a retired news director for KEZI and now a drama critic for The Register-Guard, he knows the party line but isn’t bound by it.
I pushed. “It wasn’t very long ago that it wasn’t considered news until you got a second source, independently verifying what the first source told you.” He granted my point, but we agreed that sports coverage has always had a different relationship with its sources.
Register-Guard Sports Editor Ron Bellamy warned the Ems that public relations puffery is one thing, but tampering with that trust is not very smart.
Bishoff was less charitable. I caught up with him after he’d spent the day playing golf in the sun, so he should have been in a good mood. He wasn’t. “I’d put the whole thing in the same general category with the more serious recent actions of the University of Oregon and the Oregon Transportation Commission, who — each in their own way — began with stupid acts and then misled and lied to the public about what they had done and why. Some of the clowns in both organizations may have gotten their start pulling dumb April Fool gags.”
Newspapers used to be staffed by hard-living scoundrels who didn’t give a flying fork about what others thought of them. They knew they were worse than people thought. Their single fidelity was to truth. Upstanding citizens they were not.
Oregon hiking guru Bill Sullivan recalls what it was like being raised by a news editor in Salem. “When my father’s newspaper buddies came over for a party, we always got shooed off to bed early. In the morning, when we surveyed the bottles and the bedlam, it wasn’t hard to figure out why. These men were not the ideal role models for a young boy.”
Roguery will always have a place in the newsgathering process. It’s a telltale sign of human interaction, no matter how systematized it becomes.
Well-designed pranks once a year can serve as a “stress test” to those systems. They remind us where the lines are, even if we wince watching them crossed. Skepticism must be maintained, or we’ll wake up believing something can be “whiter than white.”
So to the Ems, maybe you hit a foul ball last week, but keep swinging. And for regular readers, if a future column lands in a paper dated April 1, all bets are off. Consider yourself warned.
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) never renamed his newspaper for Randy Papé, but he now regrets the oversight. April 1, 2011 will be a Friday.