A staged news conference held yesterday by the activist group the Yes Men had people posing as news reporters, a stunt that compromises the credibility of journalists, a media analyst said.
The fraudulent press conference also posed problems for journalists in a news cycle where reporters increasingly make information public as quickly as possible, without making extra calls to verify its authenticity, said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for professional journalism.
"It makes the public dubious of real reporters," McBride said. "It makes it appear as if reporters are acting in collusion with various agencies."
The Yes Men held the fake press conference at the National Press Club, where an activist posed as a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and announced that the business lobby had changed its position and would no longer oppose a Senate climate change bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
The pretend press conference was not the first time there has been a staged event using people masquerading as reporters. In October 2007, the Federal Emergency Management Agency held a press conference at which FEMA employees pretended to be reporters and asked questions. FEMA later apologized for the stunt.
In addition, there was James Dale Guckert, a conservative columnist who used the alias Jeff Gannon and gained access to the White House briefing room, where he asked questions, between 2003 and 2005.
The man who posed as the chamber official said the group used fake reporters to make sure there would be people asking questions.
"We're not about credibility," said Jacques Servin with the Yes Men, who goes by the alias Andy Bichlbaum. "We're comedians, basically."
He added, "We're just trying to get the message out there. It's all theater. If you're against our tactics, it's going to be 'book closed.' If we have a couple of fake reporters, it's just icing on the cake, I suppose."
At the press conference, members of the Yes Men posing as reporters used names of fake publications, including the Herald Tribune and the Express News, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank reported today. But outside the conference room, another man said he was from "the E&E Daily" when confronted by Chamber of Commerce spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel, who interrupted the event.
Sevrin said that the man who posed as an E&E Publishing reporter was not one of the Yes Men and perhaps was someone the Yes Men asked to attend and "help out."
"We use funny things to get messages out there," Sevrin said. "We're not trying to be legislators, we're not trying to be politicians, we're not even trying to be reporters. We're trying to help reporters get the messages out there."
"We're not trying to represent any serious entity," he added. "If we can help get the message out, we're happy."
The stunt -- which included a fake press conference attended by about 20 reporters -- led to news stories reporting that the chamber supported climate legislation and also wanted it to include a carbon tax.
Reuters, which reported the chamber's decision to drop opposition to climate legislation, subsequently reported the hoax. The cable television network CNBC also reported that the chamber was supporting Senate legislation but also then reported that it was a prank.
The Yes Men actually first wanted to hold their event at the Chamber of Commerce, which rents out rooms. But the rooms were $1,000, Sevrin said, which was too expensive.
As well, there were messages on social networking site Twitter.
The Environmental Defense Fund appeared to accept the credibility of the event at first, tweeting "anxiously awaiting a press briefing by the US Chamber of Commerce's CEO, Tom Donohue." That was followed by "Donohue: 'Pass a strong climate bill quickly, we need a carbon tax.' A cap is the only way to guarantee global warming pollution reductions." EDF then tweeted its own rebuttal with "why a carbon cap is better than a carbon tax."
Soon after came the EDF tweet, "Speaker was a fraud. Chamber member came in and broke it up. Too bad the impostor needs a schooling on why a cap is stronger than a tax."
The Yes Men today held an event tied to 350.org, which describes itself as "a global grassroots campaign to stop the climate crisis." Bill McKibben, an author and environmental activist who helped found 350.org, said he was not focused on the tactics of the Yes Men but rather on actual climate change.
"On the list of things I'm worried about at the moment, it's pretty low," McKibben said.
The event, Sevrin said, was the first time the activist group tried to fool the press.
"We're not about fooling reporters usually, except yesterday we had a good time with it," Sevrin said. "But really that's the first time we've thrown a press conference."
He added, "Yesterday was kind of a first. Not sure we'll do that again, but it did work to get the message out."
With the news cycle so fast right now, it is likely reporters will continue to attend and report on events that could be fake, McBride said. However, in terms of the financial future of news outlets, it makes little impact.
"The whole economic underpinning of the news business has fallen apart," McBride said. "There's a trend toward the cheap stuff."
"Even though credibility is all you have to sell, it's not enough anymore," she added. "Credibility is not working as a business model. Credibility of journalism is at an all-time low, anyway."