That Day When a Professor Pranked the AP

After blogging for nearly 9 years, this is still my reaction every April Fools' Day. This day is a minefield for bloggers for obvious reason. But the pain can last even after the day of shenanigans is over, because content and images travel 'round the web for weeks or even months afterwards, detached from their original context. The best April Fools jokes, of course, are those that are feasible enough to be real - and those can be darn hard to spot.

In any case, enough grousing. Let me tell you instead of an April Fool's prank that's very meta.

In 1983, Boston University professor emeritus of history Joseph Boskin was asked by a young AP reporter about the origin of April Fools' Day. Boskin initially declined, saying that he didn't know much about it, but when the reporter kept on badgering him, he decided to play a little prank.

Boskin said that April Fools' Day originated during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine, when a group of court jesters said that a fellow jester named Kugel could run the empire more efficiently. Constantine was intrigued, so he named the jester king for a day. King Kugel declared that on that day going forward, April 1st would be a day for absurdity.

Kugel, of course, is a traditional Jewish dish - that popped in Boskin's head because he has a friend that loved it. Boskin figured that the New York-based reporter would catch on immediately, but "instead, he asked how to spell kugel," Boskin said in a Boston University interview.

The AP ran the story, and Boskin started to get calls from the Today Show and other news outlets asking him to get into more details about the origins of April Fools' Day. Boskin played along for a while.

Back at Boston University, Boskin used that as an example to teach his class how media can pick up a joke or a rumor and run it as a real story. The lesson was that journalists should question everything instead of relying on experts. Unbeknownst to him, an editor of the university's student newspaper was in attendance, and published the story under the catchy headline of "Professor Fools AP."

Naturally, the Associated Press was quite upset. "The AP had a huge conniption when they read this," Boskin told BU Today, "I got an immediate phone call from an editor there, who was furious, saying that I had ruined the career of a young reporter. He said I told a lie. ‘A lie?’ I asked, ‘I was telling an April Fools’ Day story.’

“The AP always, always checks on stories and for some reason this one fell through the cracks,” Boskin says. “It was their fault for not checking the story, and I embarrassed them. But I mean, really — kugel? What reporter from New York doesn’t know what that is?”

By the way, the young journalist whose career Boskin supposedly ruined? His name was Fred Bayles and he turned out to be all right: he's now an associate professor of journalism in the same Boston University.

Want more? See The 14 Greatest Hoaxes of All Time (this little story is #8)

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