WASHINGTON — MSNBC was deep into its coverage of the Malaysia Airlines jet crash in Ukraine earlier this month when host Krystal Ball brought viewers an “eyewitness exclusive” — an interview with a caller the network said had seen the attack on the plane.
“Well, I was looking out the window, and I saw a projectile flying through the sky,” said the caller, whom MSNBC identified as Michael Boyd, a staff sergeant at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. “And it would appear that the plane was shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern’s” nether regions.
Despite the obvious red flag, Ball blundered on. “So, it would appear that the plane was shot down,” she replied. “Can you tell us anything more from your military training, of what sort of missile system that [it] may have been coming from?”
The caller noted, rather impolitely, that Ball had failed to grasp the obvious: The call was a prank.
“I’m sorry, sir?” she replied, still unaware.
Score another for Captain Janks, the nom de hoax of the news media’s greatest crank caller.
For 25 years, Janks — real name: Tom Cipriano — has been phoning news programs and pretending to be someone he isn’t. The wonder is how often TV news organizations fall for it.
Over the years, Cipriano has punked CNN, NBC, Fox News, ESPN, ABC, MSNBC and dozens of local programs. He has called religious programs, home-shopping networks and C-SPAN. Cipriano has posed as a journalist, a football player, a comedy writer, a utility-company spokesman, a female kidnap victim — whatever the traffic will bear.
Evidently, the traffic will bear a lot. Cipriano, 48, has lost count of how many times he’s gotten on the air with his phony phone personas. But he estimates he’s made as many as 10,000 calls with the intent to prank.
Most, if not all, are the kind of thing naughty adolescents used to do when their parents weren’t watching. Like his MSNBC stunt, Cipriano’s calls usually end with an off-color comment mentioning Howard Stern, the radio personality who inspired Cipriano to become a crank caller in the first place.
But Cipriano’s pranks also stand as a running commentary on the flaws and vanities of television news. Professional journalists are supposed to check their sources for accuracy and authenticity. That Cipriano, a self-described “not-too-bright guy,” can beat professional call screeners so often suggests they don’t do it often enough in the race for color, drama and “breaking news.”
“I’m just showing that this is TV and that TV is entertainment,” says Cipriano — yes, by phone — from his home in suburban Philadelphia. “They don’t just give you the news; they give a dramatized presentation of the news. All I’m doing is ruining their sensational moment with my sensational moment.”
Cipriano, a truck driver in real life, acknowledges that it’s harder to get on the air now than it was when he began calling TV shows around Philadelphia in 1989 with the goal of promoting Stern’s then-newly syndicated radio show. When he did, he’d record his handiwork and Stern would play the tapes, egging Cipriano and a legion of “Captain Janks” imitators on. Janks became a recurring character on Stern’s enormously popular show.
“I guess you could say I was attracted to the reality-show factor on [Stern's] program,” Cipriano says. “Stern was really the first guy to do that” on the radio. “There’s a sense of community in this,” he said. “We’re a family now.”
After so many years of ambush calls, some TV call screeners recognize Cipriano’s voice and instantly banish him; others listen to Stern’s program on Sirius XM radio to learn what “Janks” sounds like. There are also pesky technologies like caller ID that make it harder to perpetrate his petty frauds. For all those reasons, as well as sheer fatigue, Cipriano says he’s not as active as he once was.
But evading the defenses erected by TV stations is still surprisingly easy, Cipriano says. All it takes is a little timing, and a little knowledge about the value of an “exclusive.” Sometimes, he’ll have a friend call for him so that a screener can’t recognize his voice until he’s on the air. At other times, he’ll bluff, telling a screener that he’s a newsmaker who is “returning your call.” If a real eyewitness gets cut off during a TV interview, Cipriano will swoop in, posing as the eyewitness and demanding to be put “back” on the air.
He also says he has a device that enables him to change his number so he can’t be tracked on caller ID. “I could use your mother’s number and it would show up on your phone,” he says.
Sometimes, Cipriano’s deceptions are so obvious they’re hardly deceptions at all. He has occasionally identified himself to screeners as “Sgt. JarJar Binks” — without raising suspicion. At times, he doesn’t even bother to mask his phone number; some screeners don’t ask how a caller with a Pennsylvania area code could be an eyewitness to an event in, say, California or a foreign country.
Indeed, his prank on MSNBC earlier this month would have been easily foiled had someone asked him an obvious question: How could a person stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev possibly have witnessed a missile attack that occurred hundreds of miles away in eastern Ukraine?
“They want the story so much that they don’t pay attention,” says Cipriano, whose alter ego is named for his commanding officer, a Capt. Jank, from his Army days in the 1980s. “They just want to beat the other guy to the punch.”
CNN has been a favorite target of Cipriano’s since his earliest days of calling Larry King’s program. The cable network has unwittingly put him on as “Gene Lasker,” a New Jersey highway official; as “Gregory Porter,” an American teenager who was freed after detention in Egypt; as “Gene Perret,” a comedy writer for Bob Hope; as “Joe Petta,” a spokesman for Consolidated Edison; as a U.S. Army general and as the mayor of San Diego, among others. Former CNN morning anchorwoman Daryn Kagan endured at least three of Cipriano’s pranks, each time with mounting irritation.
CNN declined to comment; Kagan did not respond to a request for comment.
MSNBC also wouldn’t comment about Cipriano, but spokeswoman Diana Rocco said of his Ukraine prank, “This was an unfortunate incident and we apologize to our viewers.”
A C-SPAN spokesman, Howard Mortman, said his network has offered “an open forum” for viewer calls since 1980, “and we’ve tried to keep it as open as possible. Yes, the prank calls happen periodically, but that’s the small price you pay for facilitating an open forum of public opinion.”
If a caller goes too far, Mortman said, a host can intervene. But, he added, “we’ve found that the more you try to control it, the more pranksters try to get around it.”
Cipriano says he’s never received any monetary compensation from Stern, who has called him both “the king of the cranks” and “my kamikaze.”
On the other hand, Cipriano did sell a few CDs of his greatest hits a few years ago. And his demi-fame as a prankster did earn him some appearance fees from 13 restaurant and bar owners in the Philadelphia area in 2010. (When Cipriano pocketed the fees but failed to appear at the restaurants, he was convicted of fraudulent business practices and got two years’ probation; Cipriano said he couldn’t make the gigs because he was in rehab for an addiction to prescription painkillers following hernia surgery).
Cipriano thinks he’s probably made a few journalists mad during his long career as a prankster (“You know what? I don’t care,” he says), but he doesn’t think he’s hurt anyone.
“That’s never been my intention,” he says. “This is all about fun. I know I should be embarrassed about making prank phone calls, especially at my age. But for me, even now, I’m having a good time.”
Besides, he adds, “I’m only feeding into what [news stations] want to hear.”