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Story last updated at 7:24 a.m. Sunday, April 20, 2003

Embarrassing lesson: Duped reporter learns the hard way
BY JAMES SCOTT
Of The Post and Courier Staff

EDITOR'S NOTE: Reporter James Scott went to Augusta last week to cover protests at The Masters golf tournament and, along with several other reporters, fell for a media prankster's trick. Word of the prank spread rapidly on the Internet, producing a week-long litany of criticism directed at Scott. In this column, Scott talks about the mistake and the lessons it contained. Elsa McDowell's column will return next week.

I'm a legend -- and it only took two words to make me one.

It all started Saturday afternoon at the Masters in Augusta, Ga., while covering the protests outside the gates of the Augusta National Golf Club.

With a swarm of reporters, police and protesters there for Martha Burk's high-profile stand against the club's male-only membership policy, one man held up a sign reading "Make me dinner" before being escorted away by police.

Once off the protest site, the man talked with about a dozen reporters and identified himself by a bogus name, a name that, while appearing innocuous enough on paper, refers to a sex act when sounded out.

Unfortunately, I never actually heard the protester's name pronounced, just caught him spelling it out for others and jotted it down in my notepad.

I wrote the story for Sunday's paper, tucked the quote down near the bottom, filed it to my editors in Charleston and blithely went about my life, unaware that this one name was about to make my own name known around the country.

On Monday afternoon, thanks to some astute readers with a vivid recollection of elementary school vernacular, I realized I had been duped.

The realization that one has just goofed in front of more than 200,000 readers produces a uniquely sickening brand of nausea.

But that was just the beginning. Like a snowball rolling downhill, news that the prankster had found his way into my story quickly made the rounds on the World Wide Web, copied and pasted from one e-mail to the next.

Proof of my unwanted celebrity lies in the seemingly countless messages -- actually, there were 87 as of Friday, some from as far away as Washington state, Indiana and even Canada -- that have cluttered my inbox, some simply questioning whether the name was real, others lecturing me and the newspaper for having missed what is, apparently, the oldest joke in the fifth grade.

My favorite e-mail came from a man named Brian Blair, who cordially pointed out that was indeed his real name, before writing: "You've got to be more on the ball than that or you're going to get smacked around in your journalism career." One wrote, "You got punked." Asked another, "What were you thinking when you wrote this?"

Then there were the phone calls. Newspapers in South Carolina called to request interviews. So did ABC Radio in Chicago.

A commodities trader in New York left me a voicemail message thanking me for a spot of humor on a drab Wednesday afternoon.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it turns out the prankster was an Atlanta radio shock-jock for the morning show on 99X, now my least favorite radio station in the country.

If misery loves company -- and I can testify that it does -- then my only comfort is that I was not alone.

According to the 99X Web site, the stunt was mentioned in over 100 newspapers and numerous TV stations. That makes me feel a little better at night when I curl up in the fetal position and whine myself to sleep.

While it's certainly funny -- believe me, my wife won't quit hassling me about it -- the episode has taught me a lesson: Trust no one.

My confidence in people is now tarnished, and that may be the thing that bothers me the most. People complain that reporters are jaded. Well, now you know one reason why.

But it hasn't all been bad. A couple of friends I haven't seen since college e-mailed this week, not only to give me a little grief for my stellar coverage in Augusta but to catch up on what's been going on in our lives. New jobs, new wives, new twists. It's a little embarrassing that it took my worldwide goof to bring us back together, but sometimes that's simply what it takes. That's the silver lining I'll take away from this very public dark cloud.

As Andy Warhol once said, everybody has their "15 minutes of fame." This is mine -- and I know with time it too will fade. Remember Gary Condit?

God, I hope not.

James Scott can be reached at 745-5855 or jscott@postandcourier.com.








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