The Pros and Cons of Political Prank Calls

Yes, they're juvenile; but prank calls have made for some newsworthy events, whether tricking Wisconsin's Scott Walker to spill his plans or nearly causing a nuclear war

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In lieu of Gov. Scott Walker errantly revealing his anti-union strategy to an enterprising reporter disguised as Tea Party backer David Koch, his state's legislature is set for reprisal: banning prank calls. Newly introduced legislation would outlaw making spoof calls that "mask a users identity" and impose a stiff fines of "between $1,000 and $10,000 for each call made" by the prankster, Wisconsin's Badger-Herald reports. Naturally, state representatives reportedly "deny any connection to the recent prank call on the governor" as being the proposal's impetus.

The dubious explanation of the Wisconsin legislature aside, it's a fair question to ask whether or not there should be some sort of penalty for high-profile prank calls, or whether they constitute some valuable type of guerilla journalism. In light of the heavy-fines that Wisconsin may be levying, we looked back the more newsworthy prank calls for context:

The Pros of Prank Calls

Sarah Palin Speaks With 'Nicholas Sarkozy'  If this had happened in 2010, we'd be much more apt to just shrug it off. But the 2008 presidential election was eons ago in Palin coverage. At the time of her being pranked by a French Canadian DJ pretending to be French president Nicholas Sarkozy (who doesn't speak fluent English), she wasn't labeled the political-lightweight that she's now widely considered to be. Yet, after earnestly responding to queries like whether Joe the Plumber was her husband, and letting statements like "we have the equivalent of Joe the Plumber in France. It's called Marcel, the guy with bread under his armpit" go unnoticed, her political stock took a deserved tumble. Value? It helped define Palin as Palin.

British Politician Duped By 'Gordon Brown'  Margret Beckett, described by the Guardian as "one of the least gossipy members of the cabinet" was duped by impressionist Rory Bremner into believing she was speaking with prominent politician Gordon Brown. "She seemed pleased to be rung and was almost quite coquettish, saying at one point 'I wouldn't tell this to anyone else,'" Bremner was quoted saying. The conversation which elicited "disparaging" remarks from Beckett, provided a "fascinating glimpse into how senior figures really feel about each other," concluded Guardian reporters. Value? Despite a deserved firestorm about ethics, the prank did help illuminate Beckett's personality.

Scott Walker Prank Call  Along with pinpointing  the Wisconsin governor's anti-union strategy, the Wire previously noted that the interview produced a political scoop about his plan to get his bill passed by the State Senate. Plus it elicited a few revealing snapshots of Walker:  He agreed with his fake caller "that MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski. is a 'real piece of ass.' He indicates he'd accept an offer from fake Koch to 'fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time' once 'these bastards' are crushed," and also appears sympathetic at points by noting that "he thinks the people of Wisconsin are on his side." Value? Debate the pranksters methods, but he managed to give a timely portrait of the Wisconsin Governor.

The Cons of Prank Calls

India and Pakistan Nearly Start a Nuclear War  "A hoax telephone call almost sparked another war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan at the height of last month's terror attacks on Mumbai, officials and Western diplomats on both sides of the border said today," The Times of London reported in 2008. "Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, took a telephone call from a man pretending to be Pranab Mukherjee, India's Foreign Minister, on Friday, November 28, apparently without following the usual verification procedures." Apparently the prankster threatened to take military action against Pakistan in response to the Mumbai attacks, the Pakistani president responded by putting the military on high-alert. Damage: self-explanatory, nuclear annihilation.

Congresswoman Hangs Up on Real Obama, Emanuel  An inevitable result of politicians being the constant target of pranks is that no one believes it when they pick up the phone and hears, "Hi this is Barack Obama." In 2008, a Florida congresswoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, refused to be duped by a prank caller--and instead hung up on the real President Obama and, in a second call, his then chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel. She did finally get in touch with Obama, and she told reporters later, "He laughed a lot, saying in Chicago they do it all the time." Damage: we just don't trust anyone these days.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.