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November 19th, 2009
06:31 PM ET

50on50: The Worst Time I Was Suckered – Part 2


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Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

As I was saying the other day, I’ve finally spoken with the man whose hoax put me in the most embarrassing position of my journalistic career. The author, Christopher Buckley, had written the faux “news release” persuading me to write a story for Peter Jennings that the Soviet Union was auctioning off the body of Soviet Communism’s founder Vladimir Lenin. Now, 18 years after the hoax, Buckley was on the other line. Or so I thought.

How Can I Be Sure?

I called Buckley at a hotel number “he” gave me. I asked “him,” given our past history together, how could I be sure I was speaking to the real Chrisotpher Buckley? Without missing a beat he offered this evidence: “I’m in Dallas. You dialed a hotel in Dallas. If you go to the SMU [Southern Methodist University] website, you could find that I’m speaking here tonight.”

He was right. I did dial the hotel number in Dallas that he had emailed me. I checked out the SMU website and sure enough, there he was. SOLD OUT.

I was now ready to hear his version of the hoax I fell for on November 5th 1991. “My phone rang an hour before Jennings’ broadcast the following night of November 6th,” Buckley recounted to me. “It was Peter Jennings.”

A Hoax’s Half-Life

To Buckley’s surprise, Jennings had only one question for him. “I’m just calling to get your exact title.” And, Jennings added, “I’m a big fan of (your book) The White House Mess.”

My young career had been flashing before my eyes. Jennings was writing the dreaded correction story. I was sweating a few feet away from Jennings, while, unbeknownst to me, Jennings and my underminer were having a friendly phone chat. Swell.

Not only that, but now, Buckley tells me, 18 years later, that The Lenin Hoax that I alone fell for, has been a stock feature of his on the lecture circuit for many years. The theme of the lecture is his effort to come up with a book title for a collection of his essays. One option, which he rejected, was “Wanna buy A Dead Dictator?”

If I had written that great line on November 5th, 1991 it would have taken the sting out of being suckered.

But I had found the story plausible at the time for this reason. The Soviet Union was collapsing before our eyes. Its economy was practically disintegrating. I had recently written a number of perfectly accurate stories about how Moscow was selling off what one might consider national treasures to raise money. But Lenin’s body!? I should have known better.

Justice

One thing that gives me a measure of satisfaction is this. Christopher Buckley was kicked out of the prized 18-49 demo some years ago. I asked him how that felt.

“Wait until you get to 55,” he said tauntingly.

“You’ll be getting a lot more mail than you want to get, having to do with failing organs and glands.

“I still watch the network evening news,” he confessed. “You find to your horror, all the ads are aimed at you … Blood pressure drugs. Things that help you get up out of chairs. This is what awaits.”

But I feel in better physical shape now than I did 10 years ago, I told him. Is 50+ really that bad?

He thought for a second. “There’s a lot to be said for aging,” he acknowledged. “I’ve enjoyed this 50s decade more or less. You’re calmer. A little wiser.”

Good. Please stop there.

“Some body parts do give up.”

Uch – this is not the guy to enlist in my campaign to destroy the 18-49 demo worshippers.

Well, I did get a bit off track with Christopher Buckley. There are other questions I have for him and will bring you the answers if we can touch base again soon. He was generous with his time on a tight schedule.

What Buckley Taught Me

As I was preparing for my interview with Buckley, I stumbled across a similarly bizarre story from my days on ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings. I didn’t remember it. But I was there. On, January 19, 1994, about three years after I was scammed, Peter Jennings reported, according to the Vanderbilt Archives summary, that “The Russian laboratory in charge of preserving V.I. Lenin’s body reported offering that embalming service to other people.”

It followed a report from ABC’s Moscow correspondent David Ensor on a run on the Russian dollar caused by a lack of confidence in Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

No correction was needed that time. The embalmers story was accurate.

I’m thankful to Christopher Buckley. Falling for his witty hoax strengthened my radar for identifying stories that are too good to be true.

Stumbling across the Lenin embalmers story though reminds me of another lesson. Sometimes stories that seem too good to be true, are truly good stories.


Filed under: Michael Schulder • Opinion
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Steve A.

    Archive this and read again in the summer of 2012: Palin will give Obama a run for his money in 2012. Not because of what is written, but because stories will continue to be written about her and her family. She will continue to be a media darling whether stories praise her or lambast her.

    In the "old" days, you only had three news outlets, but today there are a gazillion outlets. Sorry you were bamboozled Michael, but today some news outlets would praise you for pushing a creative story.

    November 19, 2009 at 6:58 pm |
  2. A. Smith, Oregon

    While it is refreshing to read about a journalist that realizes the story that was pushed upon him was a utter fabrication, those that do not realize that SPUN NEWS is rather routine.

    It was only the repeated and wholly dedicated efforts to Expose President Richard Nixon as suspected of committing multiple felony's that the News Media turned away from the Manson murder trial and begin covering that unfolding event. Without the repeated efforts by deep throat and a small group of ethical journalists, America's Media Outlets would not have covered that larger story at all.

    American News as much as China's Media News is purposefully spun, shaped and offered by Governmental Agency's to place those in power in the best possible light and exposure. Unfortunately, when those same Governmental Agency's chose to slander, distort and fabricate news which destroys their perceived competition, that is taken and offered by Media News as the 'gospel'.

    The most decorated example of Media News distortions is the case of the Bush-Cheney White House directives which resulted in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. If an regular American Citizen would have outed a CIA agent, they would be in prison doing hard time.

    November 19, 2009 at 4:11 pm |
  3. Lori

    Well, it is all good except for the part about the failing body parts.

    November 19, 2009 at 2:36 pm |