I was a media dupe

Even the most wary, seasoned reporter -- like, say, me -- can fall for a hoax

Published July 26, 1996 1:02PM (EDT)

There is no such thing as the Church of Kurt Cobain. A couple of months ago, however, a sorry-looking press release began making the rounds, announcing that on May 28, a church devoted to Cobain would be launched at a rally in Portland, Ore. In Portland itself, the news made banner headlines. But media types across the country also took the bait, including the Associated Press, the ABC Evening News, the MTV Radio Service and ...me.

On the appointed day, I headed up toward the park where the rally was scheduled to take place. Initially it was impossible to locate, and I wondered whether I had mixed up the address. However, the first person I approached for directions -- a respectable-looking man with tasseled loafers and a chunky field recorder under his arm -- turned out to be a reporter from a local radio station looking for the same rally. "I'm just a news hound," he told me as we marched around the park. Finally he queried a local television news truck on his cellphone, and they pointed us in the right direction.

"Here we are," he said, as we reached the north end of the park. In front of us stood about 10 congregants bearing "Peace, Love and Kurt" placards. Everybody else in attendance had a camera or cassette recorder in hand, which they pointed at the Rev. Jim Dillon as he began his spiel.

Wearing heavy frame glasses, a flannel shirt and a billed cap, the 29-year-old Dillon sermonized about Cobain's life. He denounced the media for exploiting this "lightning rod for Generation X," and urged the audience to help fight suicide and drug abuse. Then, as the inevitable rain started to fall, he took a break for questions.

I asked Dillon whether he was disappointed by the scanty turnout. "We got just about what we expected," he said. "At this point we're a much larger virtual church than a real church."

Perhaps this comment -- plus Dillon's admission that the church was "maybe 80 percent ironic" -- should have tipped me off to the fact that all was not what it seemed with the Reverend. Perhaps I should have listened more carefully to the two slacker-type passersby I quizzed, who dismissed the entire business as "totally lame." But in a city that already boasts a Church of Elvis, a second rock-and-roll house of worship didn't seem beyond belief. Nor did the penny ante nature of the rally itself ring any alarm bells. So I went to my office and wrote a short, lightly humorous article, which appeared a few days later in the Village Voice. All in a day's work, I thought, for a sardonic member of the Fourth Estate.

The next week my check came. Then I picked up a local alternative newspaper, which reported that the entire episode, church and all, had been a hoax. Jim Dillon's real name was Jerry Ketel. He wasn't 29, he was 34. And he had set up the rally as a "media jam," in an effort to make a statement about the shallowness of mass-culture idolatry.


The sensation of being duped was not a pleasant one. I always thought of myself as a properly skeptical journalist, with a decent enough nose for a scam. Surely Ketel hadn't aimed his stunt at somebody like me, somebody who practically winked at him as he discussed his plans for an ecclesiastical Web page. Didn't we, as we stood beneath the falling rain after the rally, speak the same sort of postmodern, ironic language, which had formed a pact between the two of us?

Evidently not. I had been suckered. I had, to be sure, treated the church as a goofy slice of contemporary Americana, not as a theological phenomenon. But that was how Ketel had presented it, leaning very lightly on his 20 percent of sincerity, so I hadn't felt like I was betraying him. Now I felt as if he had betrayed me. Why, Jerry, why?

No doubt Ketel holds the press in the same low esteem as most contemporary Americans do. According to this view, journalists operate as a corps of ambulance chasers, exploiting tragedies like Cobain's for any miserable below-the-fold story they can squeeze out.

But the funny thing -- which takes the edge off my bruised feelings -- is that Ketel himself seemed a little seduced in the end by his opportunity to speak through the media megaphone. In one post-hoax interview, he backed away from his prankster role to stress that "there are really good intentions for this whole project." The phony church, it turns out, had the same agenda as the real one: Ketel hoped to win a radio-sponsored contest for the best publicity stunt and then donate the money to drug-abuse programs and suicide hotlines. (He lost the contest to a guy who dressed up as "Extremo the Clown.")

Come to think of it, if Ketel's intentions are this good, then the Church of Kurt Cobain might almost qualify as the "virtual" institution he originally described. That, of course, would make me feel like less of a dupe. Still, potential converts should probably keep a lid on their prayers and donations -- at least until the next press release.

Quote of the day

Sharing the load

"To the extent that we're engaging in deficit reduction this year, we're doing it on the backs of the poor. Those who vote in high numbers are not hit. It seems inequitable."

-- Robert D. Reischauer, director of the Congressional Budget Office, 1989-1995. (From "Putting the Burden Largely on the Poor: For Deficit Cutters, Welfare is Only Entitlement Target This Year," in Thursday's New York Times).

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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