"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 January 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
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[i'm boycotting Doc's Clock.
on the last day of work last year, i met a few fiends there for a few drinks. 
 we ate our burritos with our cocktails which i thought was a sufficient 
preventive measure.]

If you want to send an anonymous

letter, wrap it around a brick

and throw it through the

recipient's window. Barring

night-vision photography or a

Gattaca-type search for

microbial evidence left on your

hate-filled screed, this is

still your best way to avoid

getting caught. The electronic

prankster's way of wielding the

poison pen is full of pitfalls.

Too easy to view source, call

your ISP, track you down through

a server trail. If anybody

really wants to find out - and

we must never underestimate the

zeal of our enemies - he will.


In her recent stinging

rejoinder to Suck, freelancing

firebrand Hariette Surovell (or

a reasonable facsimile) barely

bothered trying to cover her

tracks, sending the bomb through

her own email address with

somebody else's name at the

bottom. To be fair, a follow-up

email from rp@panix.com insisted

that Surovell wasn't really the

letter writer, that the

manifesto had been penned by

some other personality who

shares her email address. And we

should always take irate

emailers at their word. But we

have it on fairly good authority

that similar pro-Surovell

messages from this same address,

and nearly identically worded

messages from "other" addresses,

have been spotted in the

in-boxes of other publications.


[i forgot that they put roofies in the cocktails there. or something heinous.
anyway, three drinks later and a short stuble home, i clutched the toilet,
past out in rockstar's bed to wake with the alarm and examine the wastebasket 
while the bathroom was occupied.  ]

We bring this up not to drag out

a poop-slinging match in the

journalistic monkey house nor to

embarrass a long-suffering

freelancer, but because we

suspect this is not so rare a

phenomenon as cooler heads might

like to believe. Writing fake

fan letters is the secret

ambition of every writer, and

the truth is that we admire

Surovell's chutzpah in following

her bliss. Sure, it's one step

away from repeatedly calling

your love object at midnight and

hanging up when his wife

answers. But for journalists,

whose collective cool factor is

about equal to Richard Jewell's,

publishing self-justifying rants

under an assumed name is always

a temptation. It's satisfying

just to see somebody acting on

the impulse everyone else is

afraid to act on.


"I'm gonna sit right down and

write myself a letter," Nat King

Cole sings, "and make believe it

came from you." If you can cheer

yourself up that easily, why not

spread the joy to others? Who

doesn't get a little choked up

at the scene in Sunset

Boulevard where the "thousands

of fan letters" to Norma Desmond

are revealed to be acts of

mimesis by her devoted Teuton

chauffeur? You could count on

one leprous hand the number of

forgeries that have actually

hurt people. Four centuries

after the death of Emperor

Constantine, some wag

ghost-wrote a letter in his

name, implying that the emperor

had bribed Pope Sylvester I.

Fakery about long-dead people

would seem to be a victimless

crime, but in this case the

letter prompted Dante Aligheri,

in a narrative poem featuring a

fictional character named Dante

Aligheri, to consign both pope

and king to hell, where they are

charbroiled in a baptismal font.

On the upside, though, the

Shroud of Turin - a message from

Jesus Christ that has long been

recognized as a genuine

imitation - continues to provide

solace to believers. As always,

the forger has his motives, but

it's the audience that's



And listening with growing

skepticism. Last year, both The

New York Times and the New York

Post were embroiled in


scandals (the Post scandal

resulted in a knock-down,

drag-out bout between Michael

Kinsley and Post editor John

Podhoretz, a 98-pound-weakling

grudge match so furious it

deserves its own commemorative

chess set). Brill's Content

queered its own launch with a

scandal in which editors

anonymously posted

Brillmania-inducing bulletin

board messages. Betcha felt the

excitement. Other reporters -

black-hearted souls by nature -

tried to fan the flames in all

three cases, but as it turns

out, circumstances in 1998

allowed all of these stories to

vanish in the year's orgy of


soul-searching. The unwritten

story is that readers expect

about as much authenticity from

the letters column as they do

from the Jumble or "Through a

Child's Eyes" or Ann Landers

(who has argued energetically

that she never concocts



[ we had to cancel the morning's plans and set up a system of ropckstar driving 
my car to sacramento while i vomitted into
one of several plastic bags every few minutes.  ]

Generally, reader response can

be easily categorized into four

types - positive ("Thank you for

showing your readers what a

together woman Mary J. Blige

really is"); negative ("Let me

get this straight: The Post

Dispatch wants the government to

spend my tax dollars on another

liberal program?"); insane ("Why

are my tax dollars paying for

the Richmond High basketball

team?"); and milking the

conversation ("In his response

to my response to his review of

my book, Felix Muntz claims ...")

- all of which could be

generated as easily by an

editorial board as by readers.

Consider some responses recently

sparked by a San Francisco

Examiner impeachment reaction



"The show we witnessed by the

House of Representatives was a

lamentable new low in our public



"Bill Clinton should resign

immediately! If he doesn't

resign, he should be removed

from office."


"As president he's doing a good

job in the U.S.A."


Couldn't the Examiner have

gotten nearly identical results,

and saved a few dollars, by

simply manufacturing responses

with an impeachment-bot?

Wouldn't everybody be better

served if editors simply took a

creative-writing stab at

guessing what The People are



That was clearly the goal of

Michael Lerner, the widely

loathed editor and publisher of

Tikkun and spurned Hillary

Clinton advisor who was busted a

few years ago for writing a few

Norma Desmond letters to his own

magazine. Lerner's letters -

almost all of them positive and

some including balls-out psychic

editing phrases such as "Your

editorial stand said publicly

what many of us are feeling

privately but dare not say" -

provide the clearest guidance

yet for editors of barely read



[ after three dramamine and a short 
sleep i was cured.  
and off that damn bar.]

For our own barely read and

widely loathed publication, the

implications are not obvious.

We've had ample opportunity to

learn the futility of aliases,

but the sad truth is we've never

made up reader mail, added

humiliating flights of fancy to

the missives our readers

actually send in, or fluffed a

fake groundswell of public

support. We don't do it because

nobody believes what we say


courtesy of Bartel D'Arcy