Georgie Anne Geyer

No Laughing Matter

WASHINGTON -- So now we know -- or ought to know -- when a hoax is not a hoax. The popular definition would seem to be that a hoax remains simply a hoax when everybody survives it. But the denouement of the case of the two Australian DJs who phoned the hospital where England's 
Kate was resting does not, unfortunately, meet that test.

We all know by now that the nurse who took the phone call from Down Under has committed suicide and that everybody from St. James' Palace to King Edward VII Hospital, a favorite healing place of the royal family, is enraged about the foolish and frivolous prank.

But is there more to learn from this case, which found the mother of two, Jacintha Saldanha, dead apparently in humiliation after taking the call to get information on the Duchess of Cambridge's situation and palace press relations in sobering disarray? How much of this is journalism and how much is entertainment? Is there any legitimate news value that can come from such banal tricks, or is it only humiliation?

The British tabloid press has for years been driven to crack the palace's protections in every possible manner. They have hacked into the voice mails of members of the royal household and even revealed that the queen sometimes ate her cereal out of Tupperware containers. One reporter posed as a royal footman. Pestering the royals seems to rate along with Mount Everest as a challenge that has to be taken on simply "because it's there."

But even given that background, this phone call from DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian of Sydney's 2DayFM, in which the woman posed as the queen and they even went so far as to bark like the queen's "bloody corgis" for background noise, was up there among the really stupid games that reporters sometimes play.

I have to say that these kinds of pranks, if we should call them that, are almost entirely reserved for the British press and for British-formed journalism, like the Aussies. I spent 16 years working for one of our finest, most innovative newspapers, the Chicago Daily News, and never heard of anyone trying to call the White House or (God forbid!) City Hall in Chicago.

It wasn't that we weren't filled with deviltry -- we certainly were! The late great columnist Mike Royko, not unexpectedly, played a major role. He would put a top editor in some kind of comprising position and then have a character present him with an envelope full of money from the Mafia, while reporters looked on. One of our best writers, for some unknown reason, refused adamantly to wash his car; Mike got the keys, took it out and polished it silly, to the rage of its owner.

We would even sometimes send false stories to the city editor, which were always caught. But we were playing tricks on one another in the news room, not on the powerful in public. We were essentially children who needed some outlet for our energies, and we found it in fooling our comrades.

We did do any number of stories, even long series, generated by posing a reporter as a worker in a troubled industry. For instance, our star reporter, Lois Wille, got a job in an old folks' home and did an expose. It landed two Pulitzer prizes.

I tended to get the goofy assignments. Once on a Saturday night, I dressed like a waitress and let myself into a big Mafia wedding at a local golf club. I served all the big shots (really, big SHOTS) and came out safely with a lovely front-page story titled, "They had a gangland wedding, and I went along for the ride."

That got a lot of laughs from the Mafia, who seemed to think it was a compliment that we would go to all the trouble of breaking into their wedding.

In these cases, we were using the more larcenous and adventurous parts of our nature to get special stories for our paper -- stories that most often caused changes for the better, like Lois' stories.

But when we look at such infantile and dangerous pranks as the Aussies pulled in London, we are looking at two DJs who certainly had poor supervision. Even if we had wanted to do such a thing at the Daily News, we could never have done it; the gimlet-eyed editors above us would have had our hides. Thus we self-servingly never thought of it!

In our newest incarnation of news -- news a la le Internet -- you see the same thing, and the same danger. People -- you, me, anybody and everybody -- can put their precious thoughts on the Internet. Many are simply angry hats, ranting and raving and pretending they're "citizen-journalists" (when many are simply nuts).

The question, then, becomes one of accountability. What worries me is that in the Internet free-for-all, few filters are in place to stop irresponsible behavior. We are facing a world in which you cannot expect a sensitive nurse, this one as good as they come, to understand the warped sense of humor of these crass entertainers, who are as bad as they come.

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