My Failed Prank On CNN, With John Freyer
“I’ve covered a lot of stories, and never have I run across anything like this. This is a story that’s been developing while we’ve been on the air, and it’s about us!”
Below is the news coverage of the event:
“John, the producer wants to talk to you,” I say, passing the phone. “She’s really mad at us.”
Our prank wasn’t going as planned.
For the past couple of days, John and I had been preparing to hijack a live news program on CNN. Our phone interview was supposed to take place in ten minutes, but judging by the trebly, angry protests spilling from the receiver, the interview was canceled. Yes, the crazy train was going off the rails, and the confusion we created from our unlikely command center in Iowa City was now altering CNN’s live broadcast. No longer in control, all we could do was sit back and watch television.
“We have another story that’s going to be coming up in just a little bit,” said the perplexed CNN anchor, drawing a breath.
“And I’ve covered a lot of stories, and never have I run across anything like this. It is a story that has been developing while we’ve been on the air, and it’s about us.”
Cut to commercial.
Back in 2000, my pal John Freyer launched a project that attracted international media attention when he auctioned off all his material possessions on eBay. He named his project AllMyLifeForSale, which spawned a website and, later, a book — as well as a career exploring the social impact of the secondhand economy. It turned into a media circus, with Good Morning America, MTV, Chinese newspapers and every other imaginable media entity beating down a path to Iowa City and to John. CNN contacted him after AllMyLifeForSale concluded, and few days later the network sent a camera crew to collect images from his apartment to be used on air during a phone interview. It was supposed to happen the following Saturday, but a few days before, John began having second thoughts about the doing the interview.
“Hey, why don’t we freak CNN out?” one of us said.
“Sounds good to me.”
Here was the scheme: I would pretend to be John when CNN called his house twenty minutes before we were to go live. Midway through the interview, “John Freyer” would break character and lay out a blistering critique of the state of consolidated news media. We wanted to see how long the network would allow these criticisms to air before cutting the feed, and we were also interested in how well CNN would fact check the piece. The most obvious test was to transparently announce our plans on John’s Web site, which, after all, was the focus of CNN’s news story. Also, it seemed polite to give the network fair warning.
On his Web posting, John explained that all his eBay auctions had closed weeks ago and he was ambivalent about talking to yet another news outlet. “I have a plan,” he wrote. “My friend Kembrew has been watching my project progress. He too feels that the consolidation of media is a bad thing: that it homogenizes news coverage; that you have to hear about the guy selling his life on the Internet day after day after day; that it leads to the elimination of investigative reporting in an effort to increase profits and to avoid law suits. And so on.”
His posting stated that I paid him $100 for the opportunity to play him on CNN, though no money actually changed hands; he just made that part up. “I have no idea what Kembrew will say,” he wrote, “but talking to the media live was always a little nerve racking. I’m going to sleep in.” That part wasn’t true, either—we were both wide-awake the next morning, together, watching the events unfold on air.
“Oh, and … SHHHHH,” he told the world, with a wink. “If they find out they will cancel the interview. Can you keep a secret?”
The message was up for more than twenty-four hours, but CNN didn’t bother reading it until 10 minutes before we were to go live. It was about this time that the show’s producer—who assumed she had been talking to John Freyer during the pre-interview—started yelling at me. “May I speak to the real John Freyer,” she barked, before launching into a tirade that turned my friend red in the face. Afterwards, CNN needed to salvage the four or five minutes of dead air that would have been devoted to our interview, so the anchors improvised bewildered banter before they went to commercial.
“We’ve been sold out, pal,” one anchor said—hinting at what was to come but giving no information explaining what the hell was going on.
“I can’t believe it. We hope you stick around and find out what happened.” Turning to her colleague, she added, “And for such a cheap price!”
“Don’t give it all away,” the other one grumbled.
Fade to black.
After CNN returned from paying the bills, it recycled a segment it had previously broadcast, and then the network finally spilled the beans. As the anchors read the hastily rewritten script off the teleprompter, they provided some background information on John’s project—in all its light human-interest story glory. After that, the dominant male anchor grew testy.
“Yeah, well, we were going to interview him this morning on his auction, but he sold it.”
“Sold the interview,” the other one clarified. “That’s right. A friend paid Freyer one hundred dollars to be his stand in for our interview. He said it’s all part of the project. And…”
“Yeah, we said we’d call him later,” he interrupted, doing his best imitation of a ten-year old child. “Yeah, right. As if we ever will.”
“A hundred bucks, can you believe that?”
“We’ve had heroes, we’ve had heroines,” he interjected, provoking some no-you-did-not-just-say-that laughter on the set, “and now what? A Schmuck?”
“That’s all it takes to get on CNN?,” the other anchor asked. “Just a hundred bucks?”