The press conference at the National Press Club, ostensibly called by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was seemingly packed with reporters—and the message was stunning. Purporting to speak for Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue was a guy introduced as “Hingo Sembra.” In the wake of high profile defections of companies from the Chamber over the Chamber’s opposition to climate change legislation, “Sembra” said, the Chamber had decided to do an about-face and back the bill. “Without a stable climate, there will be no business,” he explained. “The Chamber believes that if we do not help to prepare a strong climate bill for the President, we will face a new foreclosure crisis, due once again to the shortsightedness of a few.”
“Sembra” went on to hold a Q&A session, elaborating on the Chamber’s purported new position. But suddenly, Eric Wohlschlegel, the Chamber’s real press person, burst in through the back door of the Press Club’s Zenger Room. “This press conference is a hoax,” he said. “I don’t know who these people are, but they don’t represent the Chamber!”
Wohlschlegel had heard about the event just a few minutes before, when a reporter mistakenly turned up at the U.S. Chamber itself looking for the press conference. Press conference? What press conference? Hearing what it supposedly was about, Wohlschlegel rushed over to the Press Club to confront the imposters. A number of the ‘reporters’ in the room were also not real reporters.
It was too late for at least one media outlet. Reuters had already run a story on its webpage with the news of the Chamber’s reversal—and the story had been also picked up by the New York Times web page. Reuters ran a hasty correction. CNBC also was taken in.
Who was responsible for the hoax? My first thought was Greenpeace. After all, it was a well-organized, not inexpensive stunt. The hoaxers rented the room at the Press Club, created their own Chamber of Commerce stationary and website, and even had a phone number which led to voice mail saying “you have reached the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”
But while a Greenpeace staffer was impressed by the stunt, he said his organization was not invovled. Instead, the imposters came from a prankster group called the Yes Men. In the past, they’ve been successful at impersonating everyone from a Dow Chemical spokesman (and appearing as such on BBC news) to ExxonMobil representatives.