The other day, I posted here about a reader’s complaint that the San Francisco Chronicle turned into a podcast. It was a voicemail message from a man who objected, very strenuously, to some redundant language in a Chronicle article.
It was the first installment of a new audio feature the Chronicle is calling “Correct Me if I’m Wrong,” and as first installments go, it was pretty great. The caller was so over-the-top obnoxious that I was compelled to write, “I will give a prize to the first person who listens to the whole thing and doesn’t either a) laugh out loud or b) want to hit the man in the throat with a flounder.”
It was so funny, in fact, that I briefly wondered if it was a stunt.
I was not the only one, it turns out, who thought it’s a stunt. A blog reader named Brian Lehman, an attorney (U. Chicago, ’00) in Washington, D.C., is not only convinced that the voicemail is a stunt, but he’s also pretty sure that the faux-irate caller was none other than … Matt Groening, best known as creator of The Simpsons.
FWIW, I called Groening’s office after Lehman first e-mailed me and subsequently sent him an e-mail through his assistant. Have not yet received a response. I am not persuaded that Lehman is right, but I do very much admire his energetic analysis. In retrospect, it also struck me as odd the podcast was introduced by Phil Bronstein, executive vice president and editor of the Chronicle (it’s a bit like George Bush recording the White House voicemail greeting). It’s also interesting that when tagging its podcast webpage, the Chronicle listed just two categories: “Correct Me if I’m Wrong” and … “Comedy.” Hmm.
Here is Lehman’s complete argument:
The best evidence that the phone call is a stunt comes from running searches on www.sfgate.com to find the article that the caller is upset about. The caller begins his message with the following:
Mr. Howe [clears throat],
I’m looking at, uh, the Monday issue, August 29th, page E6, the article on civilian spy planes. [clears throat] The cut-line under the photograph is redundant. It says “unmanned aerial vehicle” . . . not redundant but it’s prolix. It says “unmanned aerial vehicle.” The word “drone” is what you should have had in there. And then the subhead is a tautology. It says, “begins testing”. . . “for a service begins testing pilotless drone.”
Mr. Howe! Is there any other kind of drone? You, you tell me right now. Is there any other kind of drone, drone, other than a pilotless drone? Isn’t that what a drone is….[continues the rant]
I can’t find the article when I use an advanced search from 1995-present on the website. For example, no article uses the phrase “testing pilotless drone.” In fact, only 32 articles use the word “pilotless” and only 7 use the phrase “pilotless drone.”
Moreover, none of those articles match up with “the Monday issue, August 29th.” The last time that August 29th fell on a Monday was August 29, 2005.
Finally, the sound recording is also very good for a recording that is a year and a half old and presumably recorded on voice mail. [SJD note: I disagree with Lehman on this one; I have heard voicemails from 10 years ago that sound fine.]
I think that based on the above, one can conclude that the call is a prank. This leaves the question of who made the recording. The first time I heard this, I thought I recognized the voice almost instantly as Matt Groening’s voice. I had the pleasure of eating dinner with him earlier this month and talked with him for a few hours. Within two seconds of listening to the recording (and prior to the real shenanigans), I said to myself “Hey, that’s Matt.”
The best argument against it being Matt Groening is the phone call seems much meaner than Matt Groening would be willing to be. And certainly I can say that Matt was, in fact, a very nice guy when I met him. But if I’m correct that the call is a fake, then Matt is not really being mean to anyone because surely someone at the S.F. Chronicle knew that this was not real.
There may be other evidence that this is Matt Groening. First, according to this article on Salon.com, Matt worked for the Los Angeles Reader for six years and probably heard phone calls or complaints from readers. As one commenter wrote on the blog at the Chronicle , “I spent some time as a reporter for a newspaper in the south a while back, and this didn’t even come close to some of the abusive reader feedback that I’ve seen/read/heard.” Matt may be parodying those over-the-top phone calls he used to receive.
Second, Matt has also had run-ins with editors and thus might think this is particularly funny because he is not criticizing the writer but the editor. He was fired from the L.A. Reader when he wrote an angry letter to the editor. “Groening found out the way everybody else did, by picking up the paper.” Moreover, he had to face “the narrow mentality of newspaper editors (even ‘alternative’ newspaper editors ‘hated’ his approach to obscure rock criticism). . . .” Surely, Matt must have had editors talk to him this way before about things that are equally small.
Third, at the end the caller uses the phrase “Is it sinking into your thick skull…” Although I’ve been insulted many times, I’ve never been told I have a “thick skull.” But I do know that Homer Simpson has one ? in the eighth season of the Simpson’s Dr. Hibbert discovers that Homer has an abnormally thick skull and Moe decides that Homer should become a boxer.
In any event, even if it is not Matt Groening, this phone call demonstrates the type of genius I associate with him. As Homer said when watching “Man Getting Hit By Football”:
Homer: [laughing hysterically] This contest is over! Give that man the $10,000.
Jay: This isn’t “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
Homer: But…the ball! His groin! Ah ha! It works on so many levels! [laughs more] Roll it again.
By the way, the number for the Chronicle is not the “complaint” line….it is the “Open Mic” line (I called it) …
Also, did you notice the comments section [on the Freakonomics blog]. Someone comments that the only person who is going to win your prize is the guy who makes the call. Two comments later (and perhaps after getting your message and checking out your blog), someone logs in as “Bart” and says “I did not laugh out loud (or even want to) nor did I want to hit the man in the throat with a flounder.”
Conspiracy theories are fun if only because of the white noise (or potential white noise)…
Based on the available evidence, what do you think?
It’s one thing if the call was a hoax and the Chronicle was fooled. If the paper actually helped perpetuate the hoax, that would make the people who worry about newspaper credibility most unhappy.