MSNBC was deep into its coverage of the Malaysia Airlines jet crash in Ukraine earlier this month when host Krystal Ball brought viewers an “eyewitness exclusive” – an interview with a caller the network said had seen the attack on the plane.
“Well, I was looking out the window, and I saw a projectile flying through the sky,” said the caller, whom MSNBC identified as Michael Boyd, a staff sergeant at the U.S. embassy in Kiev. “And it would appear that the plane was shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern’s” nether regions.
Despite the obvious red flag, Ball blundered on. “So, it would appear that the plane was shot down,” she replied. “Can you tell us anything more from your military training, of what sort of missile system that it may have been coming from?”
The caller noted, rather impolitely, that Ball had failed to grasp the obvious: The call was a prank.
“I’m sorry, sir?” she replied, still unaware.
Score another for Captain Janks, the nom de hoax of the news media’s greatest crank caller.
25 years of stunts
For 25 years, Janks – real name: Tom Cipriano – has been phoning news programs and pretending to be someone he isn’t. The wonder is how often TV news organizations fall for it.
Over the years, Cipriano has punked CNN, NBC, Fox News, ESPN, ABC, MSNBC and dozens of local programs. He has called religious programs, home-shopping networks and C-SPAN. Cipriano has posed as a journalist, a football player, a comedy writer, a utility-company spokesman, a female kidnap victim – whatever the traffic will bear.
Evidently, the traffic will bear a lot. Cipriano, 48, has lost count of how many times he’s gotten on the air with his phony phone personas. But he estimates he’s made as many as 10,000 calls with the intent to prank.
Most, if not all, are the kind of thing naughty adolescents used to do when their parents weren’t watching. Like his MSNBC stunt, Cipriano’s calls usually end with an off-color comment mentioning Howard Stern, the radio personality who inspired Cipriano to become a crank caller in the first place.
But Cipriano’s pranks also stand as a running commentary on the flaws and vanities of television news. Professional journalists are supposed to check their sources for accuracy and authenticity. That Cipriano, a self-described “not-too-bright guy,” can beat professional call screeners so often suggests they don’t do it often enough in the race for color, drama and “breaking news.”
“I’m just showing that this is TV and that TV is entertainment,” says Cipriano – yes, by phone – from his home in suburban Philadelphia. “They don’t just give you the news; they give a dramatized presentation of the news. All I’m doing is ruining their sensational moment with my sensational moment.”
Promoting Howard Stern
Cipriano, a truck driver in real life, acknowledges that it’s harder to get on the air now than it was when he began calling TV shows around Philadelphia in 1989 with the goal of promoting Stern’s then-newly syndicated radio show. When he did, he’d record his handiwork and Stern would play the tapes, egging Cipriano and a legion of “Captain Janks” imitators on. Janks became a recurring character on Stern’s enormously popular show.
“I guess you could say I was attracted to the reality-show factor on Stern’s program,” Cipriano says. “Stern was really the first guy to do that” on the radio. “There’s a sense of community in this,” he said. “We’re a family now.”