Embarrassment and amusement. That’s the official reaction from Doug Bennet, the publisher of Masthead magazine, after his publication was taken in by an elaborate ruse perpetrated by known prankster and Saturday Night columnist Jesse Brown.
Brown decided to fabricate an anti-lad magazine called Stu because he was tired of getting beaten over the head with asinine definitions of masculinity from lad magazines like Maxim and FHM. Stu would define masculinity in a way that the “adequate man” could live up to and would be named after its “regular guy” founder Stuart Neihardt. Brown, 26, planned to write his Saturday Night column, “The Experiment,” about who he could get to fall for his prank. “When magazines are announced, they get international press coverage before they’ve actually produced a magazine,” Brown says. “People are reporting on press releases rather than facts, so I thought it would be a good opportunity for a hoax.” Little did Brown know that he would expose an unsettling trend of journalistic laziness.
Brown secured the support of Saturday Night’s management and found an accomplice, the magazine’s associate editor, Dre Dee. Posing as Neihardt, he conducted interviews about Stu, sent out an attractive colour press kit and set up a website on the St. Joseph Media web server. Right away Canadian media outlets everywhere were all over the quirky idea of Stu magazine. Brown managed to reel in Masthead (which devoted a 900-word article in its October issue that had already gone to press), Rebecca Eckler (who wrote a witty column about Stu in The National Post) and he almost fooled the CBC’s As It Happens and Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren. It wasn’t until someone on the Frank magazine forum (who calls himself or herself “greyherring”) did a reverse search on Neihardt’s phone number and discovered that it was Brown’s did anyone think something was up.
Besides “greyherring” (whom Brown privately emailed and asked to take his or her posting down so he could dupe Eckler and McLaren), it is unclear who figured out that Stu was phony first. Reporters from As It Happens smelled a rat and made some fact-checking calls. They figured out that the alleged printer of Stu, Quebecor, had never heard of the magazine. They also called a supposed advertiser who had never heard of Stu. Masthead also suspected something was going on and started to make follow-up calls but didn’t hear back from anyone before the magazine’s deadline. “In hindsight we should have waited, obviously it was a good journalistic lesson,” says Bennet. “We were, just like everybody else, amused by the subject matter of the magazine and the humour in it.”
Antonia Zerbisias of the Toronto Star finally broke the news that Stu was a hoax. She alerted Eckler that her column, which had run a couple of days before, was a national embarrassment. Eckler tipped off McLaren before she was reeled in, too. Eckler and Mclaren later “punk’d” Brown back by sending him flowers after they stood him up on an interview date they’d made – hardly the equivalent prank.
Although everyone laughed off the hoax, the fact remains that if Masthead or Eckler had taken five minutes, they could have figured out what “greyherring” did – that Neihardt was actually Brown, the same person who had recently pranked As It Happens with a campaign to stop Chapters and Indigo from following through on a decision to remove the sofas from all its stores. Brown posed as activist, Henry Chinaski, from the fictitious organization “Save Our Sofas” and protested at Chapters in Montreal with placards that read “stand up for sitting down”. Brown got a lot of media attention before it was revealed that the campaign was a prank.
“I am a humourist and satirist,” says Brown, “so I am not here to keep the press in line, but that’s certainly revealed through what happened. If someone who is paying attention starts to question the credibility of the press, that makes me happy.”
Stu magazine got such a positive response from the Canadian media that there has been informal talk about turning it into a real magazine. However, Dre Dee, who created the phony business plan for Stu, says, “the best ideas often result in the biggest failures.” Brown also doesn’t seem enthusiastic about becoming a real-life Neihardt. “It would be my just revenge if I had to go write the thing and edit it,” he says.
This may not be the last prank for Brown. When Mary-Lou Findlay called Brown back to confront him with evidence that Stu was a hoax, Brown vowed As It Happens would get pranked again. In fact, I thought Brown was trying to prank me when we spoke for this article. He told me that because he had run a successful underground student newspaper when he was 18, Ryerson University had given him an “Udo” award. He mentioned that he has been unable to find mention of the award since – convenient, because neither could I. However, after talking with John Miller, the former chair of the School of Journalism, I can confirm the existence of the Udo and that a young student had won the award for a starting a school newspaper. Seems Brown and his pranks will always keep reporters second-guessing and double-checking.