Die, Yuppie Scam
Last week, a six-month-old chain e-mail letter reached the elite literary world, snaking its way up to New Yorker editor Hendrik Hertzberg, who fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
"Not a joke, PLEASE READ," said the subject header on the e-mail. "Hello Disney fans. And thank you for signing up for Bill Gates' Beta Email tracking. My name is Walt Disney Jr."
This "Disney" character went on to ask his fans for help on an "e-mail tracing program" he was developing with Microsoft. In exchange, he offered the kind of perk any family man would jump at. "Forward this to everyone you know and if it reaches 13,000 people, 1,300 of the people on the list will receive $5,000, and the rest will receive a free trip for two to Disney World."
The chain letter brings joy to the hearts of all who read it. After all, it's one thing to be approached by shady characters on the street offering to split up a windfall of cash, and quite another to be e-mailed a fantasy vacation by your friends in the land of synergy. By December, the Disney pitch had found its way to employees of Intel and Bear Stearns, picking up little endorsements along the way. "I normally don't forward these but I could use a trip to Disney," wrote one sender. "I'm as willing to be a chump as the next person," wrote another. One wag spun it hard, insisting, "I called Disney my damn self. It's no lie."
The e-mail eventually reached New Yorker writer Tad Friend, who appended a note at 10:34 a.m. on January 12 and forwarded it to a few dozen friends, including Kurt Andersen of the New Yorker, George Kalogerakis of New York magazine, and Michael Hirschorn of Spin. The same day, someone sent it to Hertzberg, who added his annotation ("Beats working") and forwarded it at 4:30 p.m. to another dozen or so, including New Yorker contributors Fredric Dannen, Edward Jay Epstein, and Anna Husarska.
Sorry to say, the e-mail is a hoax. And it's been exposed as such in 10 newspapers, including The Washington Post and the New York Post. Both Microsoft and Disney deny its authenticity, pointing out for starters that Walt Disney never had a son. So what's the deal? Apparently, someone is running a very clever piece of credit-card fraud.
Here's one of the tip-offs. The message ends, "You will be notified by email with further instructions once this email has reached 13,000 people." If an earlier version of the chain letter is any indication, the instructions for all 13,000 chumps who respond to the Disney pitch will be to e-mail their credit-card numbers with expiration dates which ought to make someone a fine spending spree.
Press Clips contacted several recipients to ask what they made of the e-mail. "A chain letter is close cousin to a Ponzi scheme," responded Dannen, always quick to sniff out a scam. Former New Yorker editor Alexander Chancellor said he had deleted it twice, after receiving it from Hertzberg and from Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten.
Upon hearing the news, Hertzberg sighed. "I assumed it was either a hoax or a sociological experiment," he said. "But there's always that slight chance of a free trip to Disney World." He said that after scanning the long text for "interesting e-mail addresses," he sent it on to a few friends, which proved useful, because he learned that some of their addresses were defunct.
Kalogerakis was also quick to face reality. Asked if the e-mail was a hoax, he replied, "Yeah, apparently it is. I think this weather is making people need to believe in it." When told that New York literati seem ready for a mass retreat to Disney World, he replied, "See you there. I'll be the one in the mouse ears."
New York Times reporter Christopher S. Wren has won lots of fans in the progressive world since he began writing about drug policy three years ago this month. But Wren's byline has been conspicuously absent since early October. Is this permanent? Of course not. Says a Times spokesperson, "He'll go back on the drug policy beat sometime this month."
In Wren's absence, the Times's drug coverage has been hurting. Wren's last big piece was a front-pager for the Metro section that ran on October 3. That piece, a history of the use of methadone as a treatment for heroin addiction in New York City, was thorough and evenhanded, especially compared to a January 2 A-1 story by N.R. Kleinfield, which profiled three methadone users. The lurid undertone of the Kleinfield piece seemed designed to remind you that these people are still addicts, after all, and they deserve to be set free from that evil state. It was the kind of story you might have read in New York magazine once upon a time.
But New York is smarter than that. Its January 11 issue featured a methadone story by Michael Massing, another superstar on the drug beat. After reporting in the trenches, Massing discovered that Mayor Giuliani's antimethadone crusade gave an unintentional boost to the city's methadone clinics. Massing has been on a roll: his book in defense of drug treatment, The Fix, landed him a flurry of positive reviews, bylines, and interviews last fall; he is now guest-editing a drug policy issue for The Nation.
So where's Wren? Since October 13, he has been editing World Briefing, the tightly written compendium of foreign news that runs five days a week. Contacted at the Times, Wren explained that Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld first asked him to develop a prototype for World Briefing and then asked him to launch it. Wren's voice mail indicates he had planned to return to drug policy at the end of December, but at press time, he is still on the world beat.
Since year's end, at least two stories have cried out for Wren's expertise. One was the December 31 release of Chief Justice William Rehnquist's report calling on Congress to stop overloading the federal docket with state crimes. The Washington Post's drug reporter Roberto Suro made hay with this news, quoting beaucoup experts and pointing out that federal drug cases are up from 12,500 in 1992 to 16,000 in 1998. The New York Post cited the same numbers in a smart editorial, questioning "whether this is really the best use of federal resources." The Times made do by running an AP story.
The Times also flubbed the January 5 release of a Justice Department report on drug use by state and federal inmates. In the right hands, the report could provide all the facts for a big story, to wit: half of federal prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders, and one in four is a nonviolent drug offender serving time on the first conviction ever. (Overloading the federal docket, anyone?) In the face of this chronic boondoggle, the Clintonites sent out a poll- driven message: we need more money to treat all the drug users who are filling up prisons and jails. The Washington Post was skeptical of the spin's timing, but the Times reported it at face value.
Here's a more utilitarian read of the Justice Department report: if Clinton immediately released all the federal drug offenders who are serving time on their first criminal count (23,000), each of whom costs $23,000 a year to incarcerate, he could save $529 million, or more than double his proposed increase in drug treatment money! At the same time, he could show that being unfairly impeached has helped him feel the pain of Everyman in the criminal justice system.
Support Drudge; click to visit sponsor." That line first appeared on the Drudge Report last month, when the Web site began to run banner advertising. As James Ledbetter reported in The Industry Standard on January 5, Drudge gets his ads by virtue of membership in ValueClick, a Santa Barbarabased interactive ad network. Advertisers pay ValueClick to place their banner ads in a wide variety of venues, and consequently, many do not realize that their brands now appear on the Drudge site.
Nevertheless, advertisers such as Proflowers.com and Talk City are proud to be associated with Drudge, in part because he generates so much traffic. According to Guy Hill, ValueClick's director of business development, the Drudge Report shows "how nimble and lucrative the Web can be for businesses of all types." After partnering with ValueClick, Hill says, Drudge began "to capitalize on ad revenues immediately," and is now earning revenues "in the ballpark" of $2000 a day.
Drudge's increased income is sure to interest Sidney Blumenthal, whose libel suit against Drudge was delayed last year, when it looked like Drudge did not make enough money for Blumenthal to recover any meaningful damages. Indeed, Drudge did not respond to inquiries about ad revenues from Press Clips, and now he seems to be trying to cover it up.
Last week, the tag line on the banner ads no longer transparently encouraged visitors to "Support Drudge"; it was changed to the more bland "Click Here; Please visit our sponsors." On January 15, the banner ads were missing from the site altogether.
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