January 29, 1996

Longtime Media Hoaxer Lures CNN With Bogus Story


NEW YORK -- When it comes to gulling the news media, Joey Skaggs is an undisputed pro, the Willie Sutton of the counterfeit press release. During the last 28 years, Skaggs has concocted more than a dozen phony stories and gotten them covered by newspapers, magazines and television.

When it comes to unmasking himself, however, Skaggs seems to lose his deft touch, becoming less Willie Sutton than the hapless bank robber played by Woody Allen in "Take the Money and Run."

Consider how Skaggs has gone about promoting his latest media hoax, the Solomon Project.

Three months ago, Skaggs, who described himself as a performance artist, began publicizing a computer program that supposedly used artificial intelligence to render verdicts in criminal cases. In news releases, Skaggs posed as the fictitious program's developer, Joseph Bonuso, a computer scientist affiliated with New York University Law School.

Skaggs caught the Zeitgeist like a surfer catching a 20-foot wave off Waikiki. O.J. Simpson had just been acquitted of a double murder charge in a notoriously divisive verdict. Enter Bonuso, with computer software that he said would remove human foibles from the judicial system. The "Solomon" program found Simpson guilty.

With that as a hook, Skaggs was able to lure The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle and numerous legal journals to write about the Solomon Project. Then he hit a hoaxer's home run: CNN sent a camera crew to interview Bonuso at his New York laboratory -- a SoHo loft that Skaggs stuffed with actors posing as refugees from the Microsoft Corp.

On Dec. 29, CNN broadcast the segment, which the anchor, Linden Soles, introduced by declaring, "There are those who think that the Sixth Amendment ought to be amended to include trial by mainframe."

Last week, Skaggs decided to pull the plug on Solomon. Lawyers for New York University Law School had called CNN to inform the network that Bonuso, whoever he was, had no affiliation with the school. One person at CNN said the network's managers had decided not to broadcast a retraction. A spokesman for CNN said the network was still investigating the incident.

Skaggs then began publicizing the hoax -- an important process for someone whose stated goal was to demonstrate to people that they should regard the news media with more skepticism.

"I hope this provocative, controversial concept will be thought about and argued about," said Skaggs, in an interview in the cramped SoHo apartment that serves as his office.

Not coincidentally, Skaggs also needed the publicity to promote his other career as a lecturer. Though he has taught courses on the media at the School of Visual Arts in New York in recent years, he is not currently teaching there. His main source of income is the lecture circuit: He regales college audiences with tales of his hoaxes.

Skaggs said he offered an exclusive about this hoax to several publications, including Time magazine and Newsweek, and two television programs, "A Current Affair" and "20/20." But he said he had been uniformly rebuffed, which he attributed to the unwillingness of the media to admit its gullibility.

Editors at Newsweek, however, said they passed on the story because Skaggs was so abrasive in asking when it would be published. "Had he been even remotely charming, it would have been a plus," said Carla Koehl, an associate editor.

Skaggs crossed more wires when he later called both The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine. When both publications indicated that they might pursue the story, he tried to stall The Times, saying, unapologetically, "The New Yorker would pull the article if appeared in The Times first."

As for Time magazine, Skaggs said the magazine turned him down because its editors did not want to embarrass CNN. Time's parent, Time Warner Inc., has agreed to acquire CNN's parent, Turner Broadcasting System.

But Philip Elmer-Dewitt, a senior editor at Time who spoke to Skaggs, said, "The fact that he had fooled a putative corporate partner of ours made it all the more delicious to me." Elmer-DeWitt said he proposed the story to another editor, Bruce Handy, who turned it down because he felt that Skaggs' schtick had gotten old.

Skaggs first got into the prank business when Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were still making public mischief. He pulled off his first hoax in 1968, when he filled a Greyhound bus with aging hippies and took them on a tour of Queens. The Associated Press, The Daily News and The Times covered the spectacle. Since then, he has become a legend of legerdemain, with projects like Hair Today, which purported to cure baldness by transplanting scalps from cadavers, and Dog Meat Soup, an imaginary Korean company that bought unwanted dogs to sell as food.

Now 50, Skaggs looks distinguished enough to pose as a computer scientist -- with a hint of Dr. Frankenstein, just to enhance the effect.

The persona seemed to fit the 1990s. But Skaggs was a man for many eras. In the 1970s, when he appeared on "Donahue" and other programs, Skaggs's unruly hair and droopy mustache made him look like Father Guido Sarducci, the ersatz priest on "Saturday Night Live."

Some journalists contended that Skaggs' hoaxes were just about as dated. "I don't think he tells you anything about the media except that if you set up an elaborate enough ruse, you can fool anybody," Handy said. "I'd like to see him hoax some businessmen or politicians."

Skaggs was undaunted. He predicted that the Solomon Project and its media victims would make national news. And while he could perhaps use a good publicist, this column is evidence that Skaggs still knows how to get ink.

In an era of round-the-clock news, tabloid television and clamorous talk radio, Skaggs and his guerrilla tactics are still a sign of the times. His critics might tell him to get a life. But Joey Skaggs' next hoax probably already lurks somewhere among the reams of paper and stacks of cassette tapes that clutter his SoHo walk-up.

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