I have no sympathy for people or organizations that get punked. The latest examples are the Governor of Wisconsin taking a fake phone call from a fake Koch brother and an NPR executive taking a meeting with a merry band of O’Keefenicks.
These pranks are not journalism. These pranks offend journalistic ethics beause, at the very least, they require misrepresentation.
But, just as surely, these pranks are news because they create news — real news.
Tip: If you are a politician, news media person, entertainer, or other person in the public eye, you are a potential victim of punking, so be ready.
In order to be ready, one must consider the rhetoric of punking:
1. Punkers are motivated by partisan politics. Punking is a political tactic — an act of political theater.
2. The punker intends to catch the victim doing or saying something embarrassing and stereotypical for the purpose of proving that the victim (or victim’s organization) is nefarious.
3. The punker creates a rhetorical situation that encourages the victim to misidentify an exigence and the kairos necessary to handle the exigence. (This doesn’t mean the data is illegitimate.)
5. The rheme (a unit of rhetoric) the punker relies on is narrative; the punker creates a plausible story that creates the rhetorical situation and draws the victim into an exigence. The punker also allows the narrative to become increasingly implausible as the victim is drawn further into the trap. A really good punker creates a “too late” moment in which the victim crosses a point of no return — the source of the most important artifact of punking: the incriminating sound-bite. (We all must, however, be wary of “too late” moments created by disingenuous editing rather than actual punking skill.)
None of that is surprising. It’s standard, frat-boy stuff.
Understanding it in political and rhetorical terms is just the first step in defending against punking.
The larger, and perhaps more interesting, point is that we now live in an age in which punking is easily accomplished and disseminated. And there appears to be no reason whatsoever not to try it. Just avoid breaking laws, and you’re good to go.
The best defense: A damned sensitive bullshit meter and the willingness to check out people before you talk to them. It also wouldn’t hurt to have the kind of personal values that eschew name-calling, demonizing, and incivility. I mean really — a Muslim group wants to give $5 million to NPR? You couldn’t see that one coming? Geez…