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Below the Beltway / Entertainment

First Things First: It's April Fools'. Be Careful Out There

EDITORS -- This column was originally published 11 years ago today. The inaccuracies throughout are cq.

WASHINGTON -- Today being April Fools' Day, and this being Washington, it seemed appropriate to visit the office of Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce Flora Pilos, whose responsibilities include policy analysis, consumer affairs and, most to the point, hoax management.

Under federal law, a hoax is a fraud perpetrated without criminal intent or economic consequence, but with the effect of confusing the public. Pilos' job involves identifying such pranks and limiting their spread.

I asked her: Aren't hoaxes, by their nature, harmless? Is this really necessary?

She smiled dryly. "You're asking a bureaucrat if her job is necessary?"

Good point.

Necessary or not, her office was a beehive of activity. Pilos and her two deputies -- Alan Smithee and Lorem Ipsum -- were gearing up for a difficult month.

"Once every seven to 11 years," she said with a massive sigh, "April 1 falls on a Sunday. Every tinhorn newspaper editor in charge of some Sunday-only light features section with a dweeby name like 'Wheee!' or 'Laffs n' Leisure' decides it would be clever to pull a supposedly harmless trick. Frankly, I think newspapers who do this are squandering a sacred bond of trust with readers."

Pilos, a former executive with Phlogiston Inc., an alternative energy company, has no patience for practical jokes. "So-called harmless hoaxes," Pilos said, "sometimes have unintended negative impact. Some are even stitched into the very fabric of our nation's capital."

"You know about the statues of the Civil War generals, right?" Pilos asked.

...continued

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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