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November 17th, 2009
02:00 PM ET

50on50: The worst time I was suckered


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Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

I got the email in a plane on the runway. Last night at 8:22pm. HE – the man who was responsible for my most embarrassing panic-inducing moment as a journalist – is “happy to talk … eager to help if I can,” according to the message on my buzzing Blackberry. It’s been 18 years since I fell for his practical joke. Eighteen years since I relayed his faux news release to the largest news audience in America, on 'World News Tonight With Peter Jennings.' Jennings had the egg on his face. But I pitched the egg. And now HE – that eminent author with the twinkle in his eye, is “eager to help if he can.”

NOVEMBER 5, 1991

That’s when it happened. The evening of November 5th, 1991. I remember the specific date because I just looked it up on the internet. My memory of being suckered lives forever in my heart and on the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. I was a mere 31-years-old. A year into my job as the youngest of Peter Jennings’ three writers. That’s when the fax came into our newsroom with the story I couldn’t resist.

FORBES FYI

The news release, in some respects, sounded too good to be true. But the letterhead on the fax was from a reputable news brand: Forbes. Forbes FYI to be precise. It had a phone number at the bottom. I dialed it. The answering machine was on (in those days it was an actual machine.) It sounded authentic to my 31-year-old ears. But nobody would be available until the next day.

Christopher Buckley at an event in New York City in May.
Christopher Buckley at an event in New York City in May.

I couldn’t wait. Jennings was going on the air in 90 minutes, and I felt compelled to beat the competition with this gem of a story about what the Soviet Union planned to do with the body of its founder, Vladimir Lenin. The Kremlin, according to the fax, was going to auction off Lenin’s body to the highest bidder.

THE CULPRIT WAS …

So now, after all these years, I’ve tracked down the author of the faux fax. It was no secret who wrote it: the eminent author Christopher Buckley. Given my one experience with him, when he emails me that he’s “eager to help,” I’m reminded of the Twilight Zone episode when strange looking creatures from outer space with huge brains descend on earth. The only clue to their intentions is a book they’ve brought with them written in their strange language. The American translators are relieved when they figure out the book’s title: “How to Serve Man.” By the time they realize it’s a cook book, it’s too late. I will speak with Christopher Buckley, but not near the kitchen.

CAN I TRUST BUCKLEY NOW?

I was still on the runway, waiting for my flight to take off, when another email from Buckley arrived, at 8:27 p.m., a mere five minutes after the first. Buckley could talk now. I called immediately.

Chris: Michael!

Me: Chris!

I was in a bit of a fog from the excitement, so I’m not sure I got his quote right. But I think he said “I’ll tender an apology 15 years late.” So tender.

I told Buckley I couldn’t really talk now because my flight was about to take off. But we made plans to chat the following day (today) in the afternoon. “You’d better get off the phone,” he urged me, “or you’ll get in trouble with the FAA. I don’t want to get you in trouble a second time.”

A gentlemanly gesture? Or rubbing salt in an old memory?

He invited me to call him tomorrow (that’s this afternoon.) He’ll share his side of the story. And for the first time after all these years, he’ll get to hear my side – what it was that tipped the balance that led me to push the hoax on Peter Jennings.

I can’t help but wonder - if I shouldn’t have trusted him then, should I trust him now? Should I consider turning the tables on him? No. I’m not into revenge. And, besides, he’s too sharp for that. Too much life experience. Christopher Buckley was kicked out of the 18-49 demo years ago. I’m about to join him on the other side. We should view each other as potential allies now. Allies in my campaign to destroy the 18-49 demo worshipers. Perhaps he’s interested. We’ll see.

I have a good feeling about the conversation Chris and I have scheduled for this afternoon. After all, Buckley gave me his cell phone number, his home number, his email. That’s akin to a soldier laying his gun and knife on the table. I have reason to believe my full interview with Christopher Buckley, which I hope to bring you here tomorrow, will go great.

But Buckley taught me an important lesson 18 years ago. I can’t be so sure.

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Follow Michael Schulder's battle against getting kicked out of the 18-49 demo here


Filed under: Michael Schulder • Opinion
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Tamara

    I thought this was about 50 Cent!!!

    November 17, 2009 at 3:34 pm |
  2. Lori

    I think you need to ask yourself if you have changed enough to be able to handle him.

    November 17, 2009 at 2:46 pm |
  3. Lori

    I am not sure what to say to you. Normally I would say use your best judgement. However, I am not sure what that means in your case.

    November 17, 2009 at 2:35 pm |
  4. Elle

    You were onioned!! So funny!! Isn't he one of the inspirations behind Jonathan Ames' publisher character on 'Bored to Death'?

    November 17, 2009 at 2:19 pm |

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