By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 19, 2009 1:44 PM
Will the real U.S. Chamber of Commerce please stand up?
Environmental activists held a hoax press conference Monday morning, pretending to be the business group -- and pretending to announce that the chamber was dropping its opposition to climate-change legislation now in Congress.
The event, complete with fake handouts on chamber letterhead, at least a couple of fake reporters, and a podium adorned with the chamber logo, broke up when a spokesman from the real chamber burst in.
What followed was a spectacle not usually seen in the John Peter Zenger Room at the National Press Club: two men in business suits shouting at one another, each calling the other an impostor and demanding to see business cards.
"This guy is a fake! He's lying! This is a stunt that I've never seen before," said Eric Wohlschlegel, an official at the actual Chamber of Commerce, who said he'd heard about the hoax event from a reporter who'd mistakenly shown up at the chamber's headquarters.
The fake Chamber of Commerce official, who called himself "Hingo Sembra," did not give his real name to reporters, saying only that he represented a coalition of climate activists.
He appeared, by comparing photos on the Internet, to be a member of the activist-prankster group called The Yes Men. They have staged several hoaxes to draw attention to what they believe is slow progress in fighting climate change. The group's last big stunt was to print fake copies of the New York Post last month during a U.N. climate conference, bearing the headline "We're Screwed." Asked if he was one of The Yes Men, he merely said, "Who?"
Before the real chamber official burst in, he told reporters that the chamber had decided to give up its aggressive opposition to climate legislation -- which has included a not-a-hoax call for a new "Scopes Monkey Trial" to prove the science of climate change.
He said the chamber would prefer a carbon tax, but would support Senate legislation drafted by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as a starting point. He said he was responding to the concerns of member companies who have quit the chamber over its previous stance.
"This isn't the cause, of course, of our change of heart. It is simply the cue," he said. When a reporter asked what he would say to chamber members who continued to oppose climate legislation, he replied, "There will always be people behind the times."
A few minutes later, Wohlschlegel -- from the real chamber of commerce -- burst in, and it was all over but the shouting. Afterward, he said the chamber's position had actually not changed: they have called for "strong" legislation on climate change, but they do not support the bill passed by the U.S. House this summer.
"It is a very sad day," Wohlschlegel said.
After the jig was up, a real reporter asked the fake spokesman if he thought this kind of event -- if lying about who he was, particularly -- was really going to help his side win the national climate debate.
"Don't know," he said, apparently speaking as himself.