Chamber Of Commerce In Climate Change Hoax

A story that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had dropped its opposition to climate-change legislation turned out to be an elaborate hoax. Posing as the Chamber, a small environmental group held a news conference at the National Press Club and issued a press release over the Internet.

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made no secret of its opposition to climate change legislation working its way through Congress. So, when the Chamber held a news conference this morning announcing a complete reversal, it was big news - but only for about 20 minutes, until it became clear that the whole thing was a hoax.

NPR's Tamara Keith tells us what happened.

TAMARA KEITH: The Chamber of Commerce got punked and so did Reuters, which went to its newswire with urgent bulletins announcing the Chamber's apparent shift. There was a press release, an official-looking Web site and a news conference at the National Press Club with this guy behind the podium.

Mr. ANDY BICHLBAUM (Member, The Yes Men): I am Hingo Sembra, official spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

KEITH: Okay, so what's your real name?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BICHLBAUM: Okay. I'm Andy Bichlbaum, and I'm with The Yes Men.

KEITH: The Yes Men are a crew of pranksters who have pulled off similar hoaxes posing as officials from Exxon, Halliburton and the federal government. In this case, they were working with a small activist group called the Climate Action Factory. Bichlbaum wore a borrowed black suit. He delivered formal remarks about the Chamber's momentous decision, then opened it up to questions. There were about a dozen reporters there.

Mr. BICHLBAUM: The questions seem to all be very annul, like, well, this carbon tax you're talking about, it's not necessarily going to happen. How do you feel about that? You know, what are the next steps? It just seemed perfectly ordinary to everybody.

KEITH: Perfectly ordinary until a real Chamber spokesman showed up.

Mr. ERIC WOHLSCHLEGEL (U.S. Chamber of Commerce): I'm Eric Wohlschlegel. I'm with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This is not an official U.S. Chamber of Commerce event.

KEITH: In this video shot by Brandon Jourdan and posted on The Yes Men Web site, the real Chamber spokesman and the fake Chamber spokesman argue about who's lying.

Mr. WOHLSCHLEGEL: Can I see your business card?

Mr. BICHLBAUM: Can I see yours?

Mr. WOHLSCHLEGEL: Are you here representing…

KEITH: The audio is hard to understand, but basically Wohlschlegel is challenging Bichlbaum's credentials, saying it's strange he's never seen him around the Chamber before. Now, just to be clear, the Chamber has not changed its position on climate change legislation. It says it supports the idea of addressing climate change, just not the bills Congress has come up with.

In a statement, the business lobbying group said hoaxes like this one undermine genuine efforts to address climate change. Twenty minutes after the first breathless bulletin, Reuters issued a correction. Courtney Dolan with Thomson Reuters says the news service has an obligation to run with stories that could move the financial markets.

Ms. COURTNEY DOLAN (Thomson Reuters): Once we confirmed the release was a hoax, we immediately issued a correction. And in keeping with the Reuters' policy, the story was subsequently withdrawn and an advisory was sent to readers.

KEITH: The Chamber says it will be asking law enforcement authorities to investigate the hoax.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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