Columnist ‘Punk’d’

Stu Bykofsky

Columnist Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News, despite being quite the extrovert, rarely finds himself a news subject. It’s because he’s first a journalist, although with his in-your-face style, that might seem surprising. This week, however, Bykofsky has landed in the cable yaks war, “yaks” being those chat-show hosts on the 24/7 news/comment channels, with articles in major publications and blogs elsewhere.

A quick sum-up. Bykofsky — a former board member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists — in his Nov. 4, 2010, column gave the results of a content analysis he did on whether the right’s Bill O’Reilly on Fox News or the left’s Keith Olbermann on MSNBC showed more opposing views on their programs. “Byko’s” piece can be seen as an analysis following the general elections of Nov. 2. Olbermann he found had less dissent on his show. Olbermann was suspended Nov. 5-8 (crossing a weekend) for violating NBC News policy by making political campaign contributions.

Bykofsky wanted to write a follow-up and tried to contact Olbermann by e-mail. They had a testy written dialogue, which somehow came to be published at the blog Phawker.com. Those who know Bykofsky can just hear his sarcasm. The trouble is, Olbermann sounded to the columnist like he would sound, too, but he wasn’t.

Olbermann denied writing the e-mails. Conservative cable yak Tucker Carlson has confirmed he pretended to be Olbermann and wrote the e-mails to Bykofsky. Carlson bought the website keitholbermann.com, including the address keith@keitholbermann.com. Carlson told Yahoo News: “Could you resist? It was just too funny.”

I’m not sure who’s the worse off for this, except Bykofsky, maybe. Olbermann is innocent here. Carlson had a gotcha. Byko? Well, he did not print Olbermann/Carlson’s e-mails so he did not misquote. If somehow this didn’t get out, it would’ve just been a routine day for Bykofsky: calls, messages, deadlines.

The Philly Daily News reports what happened here, and The New York Times version is here.

Bykofsky wrote me [NSNC President Ben Pollock] the following: “I got punk’d, as part of my quest to reach Olbermann for comment. I made an honest effort, and the whole story wouldn’t have been had not someone leaked it out. I also did a Monday piece on the Olbermann escapade. As far as I can tell, he didn’t respond to ANY reporter seeking his side. Today, I answered EVERY media’s request, from the NYTimes to Forbes.”

There’s a lesson here for us scribes of both the reportorial and columnizing varieties. If Bykofsky wanted a second follow-up he might well have quoted Carlson-as-Olbermann. He says the tone sure sounded like Olbermann’s.

My Bykofsky quote from above. Was it really my friend of some seven years Stu? It sure sounds like him, and it’s the e-mail address I always use for Stu. It might be his wife writing while he’s watching a game on TV, or it might my former colleague Tucker, if he was a hacker or knew one to invade the newspaper’s servers.

We have to start being more careful when conducting online, e-mail or text-message interviews.

A slightly longer version of this appears at Pollock’s blog Brick.