It was only a few weeks ago that a New York state senator proposed legislation that would have prohibited pedestrians in New York City and Buffalo from talking on their cell phones while crossing the street.
So it was not hard to believe a story on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday" that reported how a New York city council member is proposing that all cellphone ringtones, except for four approved by the government, would be banned in an attempt to prevent "ring rage" -- that is, people getting into fights because of obnoxious or loud cellphone rings.
I was listening to the report in the car on my way to church and was particularly struck by this soundbite from Councilor David Yassky, responding to New Yorkers who called the proposal "ridiculous," which encapsulates so perfectly the road from compassion to totalitarianism:
That's exactly the sort of crypto-socialist, nanny-state claptrap that one has come to expect from New York politicians. So who could blame me for being suckered by a National Public Radio April Fools' prank?David Yassky: Well, look, Liane, you can always find people that complain about any change but you know, first of all, it's not just the noise pollution. This is very costly to our economy. We estimate that distracting ringtones in the workplace and then the arguments and joking that goes along with that cost our economy more than $1.2 billion a year.And, you know, when we did the pooper-scooper law, we did the smoking ban, we banned trans fats, first, you know, people objected but then they realized just how valuable these laws can be.Liane Hansen: So you don't think it's too extreme?Yassky: Not at all. I think New York will prove to be a model. Once we do this, I think you'll see this in cities across the country.
It turns out that NPR has a history of playing effective April Fools' jokes on its listeners. In an Arts section article on Sunday, Washington Post radio beat reporter Marc Fisher notes:
NPR producers have a knack for finding phony stories that sneak right up to the edge of credibility. In 1994, "All Things Considered" reported on teenagers who agreed to tattoo their ears with corporate advertising in exchange for a lifelong 10 percent discount on the company's products. NPR has presented April 1 reports on dog-bark translation software, the abuse of performance-enhancing steroids by classical violinists and a U.S. Postal Service program that would allow Americans to take their Zip code with them when they moved....I didn't know any of this history at the time I turned off the radio, before the music bumper of Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York" (done in a comical style) would have revealed to me that I had been had. It wasn't until I looked it up on NPR's web site -- with the intention of blogging about the latest legislative outrage from New York -- that I found out the truth of the prank.
NPR's gags tend to take listeners to remote corners to visit unusual characters. But in 1992, "Talk of the Nation" host John Hockenberry reported that Richard Nixon was coming out of retirement to run for president. The report included audio of Nixon defiantly averring that "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again." NPR included comments on the surprise announcement by Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe and Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman. Callers jammed the show's phone lines to deliver themselves of their outrage that the disgraced ex-president would consider such a comeback. Hockenberry waited until the show's second hour to reveal that what the Nixon listeners had heard was actually impressionist Rich Little.
Good job, NPR! If nothing else, it shows that the line between reality and satire is very thin, indeed.