The Big Setup

A serious discussion of ethics and media, which wasnt

Members of political groups as disparate as the JFK Good Works Democratic Club and the Orange County Federation of Republican Women thought they had been invited—most by e-mail—to a panel discussion of ethics and the media. And so on March 30, they drove to the Tustin Hills Racquet Club in Santa Ana for an evening of mature dialogue on a sober subject.

It did not go as planned. One of the two university professors slated to be on the panel was a no-show. The moderator was a milquetoast who let the discussion range free. And a panel member who introduced himself as Kevin, a television journalist from Spokane, Washington, gave what another speaker says was "a very bad imitation" of Will Ferrell's Anchorman character Ron Burgundy, trying with some success to goad the audience into a shouting match.

"It was completely set up," says audience member Sharon Underwood, president of the Orange County Federation of Republican Women, who attended with her husband. "It seemed, not shady, but unprepared and unprofessional. But you're surrounded by a great deal of very professional-looking equipment."

What it was was the taping of what could be one in a 10-episode documentary-style series, Dog Bites Man, for Comedy Central, the cable network famous for its deadpan delivery. (The series is reportedly scheduled to premiere in June.) And because it looked legitimate—at first—everyone believed the taping was genuine; besides, they were paid $20 cash for their time and asked for their Social Security numbers, just as if they were extras on a real show. Some worried about an identity theft scam when that happened, but only one person recognized the ringer on the panel.

At one point, he said, "'We're the real journalists on TV. These pen jockeys'—and he looks over at the print [reporter on the panel]—'they don't add any drama to the story,'" recalls KUCI radio DJ T.R. Black, who was in the audience and thought the man was Los Angeles comedian Ian Roberts, a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, whose members have appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live—and who had their own series on Comedy Central.

After he twice yelled out the name of the comedy troupe, Black says, one of the producers, Jennifer Hutner of Central Productions in Los Angeles, escorted him outside and offered him $60 cash to leave immediately. (Hutner did not respond to requests for comment.) Black says he accepted—"At that point in my brain, I'm going, 'I don't want to wreck this for everybody'"—and retreated to the parking lot, where he questioned crew members and truck drivers about the show being filmed.

"I couldn't get anything out of the crew. The crew got really nervous," says Black, who was deeply amused. "I thought it was funny."

He appears to have been the only person who laughed.

"I feel you were brought in there under false pretenses. You could almost call it fraud. You thought you were coming in to hear some serious people talk about serious issues," says Marti Schrank, volunteer coordinator for the Democratic Party of Orange County. "Three-quarters of the audience I knew, and these were progressive, politically active people." Others in the audience saw members of the Libertarian Party, Democracy for America, the League of Women Voters, Reclaim Democracy.org and Women for: Orange County. But no one today—except, perhaps, Black—is remotely happy to have been there.

"We all agree we got slimed. They set me up as a professor, and there's a little responsibility here. I felt a little ashamed," says Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University, who remembers putting his head down on the table in shame and frustration as the evening went awry. (Smoller, who was paid $150 for his appearance, identifies the ringer as UCB member Matt Walsh.) "If you want to play, and it's Comedy Central, you play, but you don't do it like this."

*   *   *

Comedy Central's Steve Albani, vice president of corporate communications says he has no idea whether portions of the evening will end up on Dog Bites Man—but that everyone present signed the appropriate release forms before the taping. But the evening remains the topic of more than a dozen e-mails and telephone conversations—plus a call to the Orange County Sheriff's Department to talk about fraud, a certified letter to Central Productions and talk of a civil lawsuit—even though others in the audience are ready to simply admit they've been had.

"I never really thought about it until [Smoller] called me," says Orange County Business Journal reporter Pat Maio, the print journalist on the panel. He advises everyone else to "let it go. It's like a divorce."

Which Sharon Underwood has already done: she donated the $20 she received to her organization's educational fund, the Pat Nixon Scholarship.

 
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