There’s no semi-regular occurrence in television news that infuriates the hell out of me more than a prank phone call winding up on the air. When you understand the processes that are in place to stop that kind of thing from happening, especially at the network level, to see the whole thing break down so spectacularly makes you want to put your fist through a wall.
Early in my career I worked in a local news shop that felt like it was plagued by calls from people trying to make it on-air to disrupt our live coverage during breaking stories. Our protocols were so lousy in how we confirmed the identities of people who called in and we were so willing to do anything to get that one awesome eyewitness during rolling coverage that we’d let our guard down constantly. In fact, the staff used to have an inside joke that if somebody called up during a brush fire claiming to be the pope, our desk editor would probably shoot up out of his chair and shout to the newsroom, “THE POPE IS ON THE PHONER LINE! Thank you so much for joining us, your excellency. We’re sending you up to the control room right now.”
If you call into a newsroom saying that somehow you’re part of a big breaking story, they’re not supposed to just take your word for it. They’re supposed to hang up with you and then call you back, so they can at least check out your number and where you’re calling from. Newsrooms are supposed to vet alleged eyewitness phone calls the same way they vet any other information coming into or going out over their air. But in the rush to get as much detail as possible on a breaker, a lot of newsrooms will often risk not only getting those details wrong but allowing some smart-ass to make a mockery of them on local or national television.
We’ve seen it going back years, again and again and again, with Captain Janks of the Howard Stern show, and now we’re seeing it with people determined to promulgate the latest prank meme, “fuck her right in the pussy.” It’s one of these clowns who called in to MSNBC today in the wake of a Delta jet skidding off the runway at Laguardia. Andrea Mitchell introduced a call from someone claiming to be a passenger on the jet. But not just any passenger: New York Giants tight end Larry Donnell, who really was on the flight.
It should’ve taken all of two seconds for Mitchell or somebody in the newsroom or control room to realize that the person they have on the phone was white and therefore they were being set-up, since Donnell is black. But no, on the call went for another few seconds, just long enough for Mitchell to ask “Larry Donnell,” “Where were you sitting on the plane and when did you first know you were all in trouble?” to which her caller answered, “I was sitting in the — fuck her right in the pussy.” Mitchell didn’t even know what had happened. It took MSNBC’s Tom Costello to clue her in that they’d just been pranked.
It’s fucking ridiculous that something like this could happen to a network like MSNBC and to a roomful of people who are supposed to be pretty smart. I’d like to say that I’m angry at the guy who called in but I’m absolutely not because he never should’ve gotten on the air. It’s one of the simplest mistakes not to make, especially when the person pranking you is pretending to be someone easy to confirm (or at least be able to grasp isn’t the same race as the guy you’ve just put on the air). In the great scheme of things there are much bigger problems with TV news these days than a few jokers saying naughty words on the air, but this is one the most easily avoidable embarrassments imaginable and most stations and networks just can’t seem to get it right.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.