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.
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.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with