TV Station Falls For Pranksters; Sues Them For Fraud

from the oh...-so-you-want-your-dumbassery-to-be-part-of-the-public-record? dept

Playing pranks on local newscasters is a proud tradition that dates back to the days when people actually watched local newscasts for news. All it takes is willing pranksters, segment producers looking for filler, and staffers unwilling to perform even the most basic due diligence.

Enter Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, most famous for buying up flea market VHS recordings and dubbing comedic commentary over the top of them. Their current catalog covers everything from retailer-produced sexual harassment videos to jazzercise to a variety of self-appointed experts opining on subject matter in which they clearly have no expertise.

Prueher and Pickett also developed a few alter egos and sent out press releases to a number of local TV stations, hoping to have them booked. WEAU in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, fell for one these press releases and invited strongmen "Chop & Steele" to perform on its morning show, "Hello Wisconsin." The two comedians showed up in full "Chop & Steele" garb and wowed newscasters by crushing baskets with their feet and breaking sticks with their bare hands.

WEAU wasn't the only victim of "Chop & Steele" and other Prueher/Pickett alter egos. But WEAU -- through its parent company, Gray Television -- is the only one to make a federal case out of it.

Gray Television filed a lawsuit against the pair, alleging fraud, conspiracy, and copyright infringement. Pickett and Prueher -- now represented by attorney Anderson Duff -- were first notified of the lawsuit by a New York Post article. At this point, the lawsuit is still waiting for a judge to take a look at it, but hopefully it will be tossed out shortly after this. Just in case it isn't, the duo have set up a crowdfunding campaign for legal fees. (h/t Daniel Nazer)

The lawsuit [PDF] from Gray Television is inadvertently hilarious. Considering its arguments about being "defrauded" by pranksters its staff would have sniffed out by performing a little pre-show fact-checking, it's pretty rich for Gray to make the following claims:

Gray Television owns television station WEAU in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

For more than sixty years, WEAU has served as the trusted and respected news source in Western Wisconsin.

[...]

As part of its continuing commitment to bringing accurate information to its viewers and remaining an industry leader, in 1979 WEAU became the first television station in the market to have its own Doppler weather radar.

Trust and respect are earned. They can also be lost. When you don't vet your morning show guests, guess what happens. The fraud and conspiracy allegations in the lawsuit attempt to bridge the statutory gap that cruelly leaves butthurt unremedied. The complaint begins with Gray admitting the station did fuck-all to verify the claims made in Chop & Steele's press release.

The press release identified Joe Picket by the fake name “Joe ‘Chop’ Shopsin” and Nick Prueher by the fake name “Nicholas ‘Steele’ Stelling.” It stated that the duo would perform “a series of free live events in Black River Falls, LaCrosse, Eau Claire, and Winona the week of November 28, using their muscles to entertain and educate” on unity, inner strength, and ways to prevent bullying “through humor, courage and self-respect.” The press release further claimed that “Chop & Steele” were “fan favorites from season three of America’s Got Talent,” and were also featured on Steve Harvey, the Hallmark Channel’s Marie, and Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary Celebration.

The information in the press release was entirely false. Prueher and Pickett were not on a “Give Thanks 4 Strengths” tour. They did not have any events scheduled in Wisconsin or elsewhere. They had not appeared on America’s Got Talent, Steve Harvey, the Hallmark Chanel or in Disneyland.

Believing the information provided in the email and press release, a WEAU anchor enthusiastically responded the same day to “Jerry Chubb” stating that “Hello Wisconsin would LOVE to have Chop and Steele” on the program and asked for more details to prepare for their interview and demonstration.

Based on its own failures, WEAU was duped. Rather than accept this and move on, Gray Television is trying to portray it as fraud. The problem is, none of it really satisfies the statutory requirements for fraud. While the statements made in the press release were demonstrably false, the duo's appearance on the show didn't deprive the station of anything other than its production costs for that segment, if even that. If viewers watched the entire segment -- along with any advertising -- it's hard to believe the station lost anything.

On top of that, its assertions about the station's long-running trustworthiness make it clear the two comedians didn't intentionally exploit WEAU because it was inherently exploitable, as explained by The Legal Dictionary:

Reliance on a patently absurd false statement generally will not give rise to fraud; however, people who are especially gullible, superstitious, or ignorant or who are illiterate may recover damages for fraud if the defendant knew and took advantage of their condition.

A TV morning show with decades of asserted trustworthiness does not fit this description. Perhaps this is why Gray Television's complaint offers nothing more than boilerplate allegations of loss.

As a direct result of Defendants’ fraudulent conduct set forth herein, Gray Television has been damaged and is entitled to recover compensatory damages in an amount which shall be proved at trial.

But "damaged" how? If the segment was watched and the station didn't lose viewers after the fact, there's not much there to work with. The complaint makes no mention of other possible damages -- like decreased guest/ad bookings or even a vaguer "reputational damage." It appears to believe it should get paid because its lax fact-checking processes resulted in it being embarrassed.

Gray Television also alleges copyright infringement because the duo used clips of the morning show to promote their Found Footage Film Festival. This appears to have been thrown into the lawsuit just in case the judge has no sympathy for WEAU being a victim of its own carelessness. Again, the use of the clips -- even in promotional videos -- is likely fair use, as it's part of a much longer clip showing the range of the comedians' artistic endeavors.

Whichever angle you take, the lawsuit is ridiculous. Chances are the station would have been fine with use of the clips if it didn't make it look like the morning show was more interested in filling open segments than providing quality broadcasting. The copyright infringement allegation might be the strongest, but that doesn't mean it's the "rightest." It just means our copyright laws are so screwed up, pranksters can still be sued for using a brief clip of a morning show appearance on their own website or YouTube channel.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2017 @ 9:33am

    The information in the press release was entirely false. Prueher and Pickett were not on a “Give Thanks 4 Strengths” tour. They did not have any events scheduled in Wisconsin or elsewhere. They had not appeared on America’s Got Talent, Steve Harvey, the Hallmark Chanel or in Disneyland.

    This is why you Google the strange looking wild mushroom BEFORE you eat it. Not after.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 27 Aug 2017 @ 1:45pm

      Re:

      You become a tourist by touring one single location. As soon as the TV station scheduled them to appear, the 'tour' they were on became real, even though it had only one event.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2017 @ 9:50am

    President of Gray Television: They've made us look like fools! By God, I'll make them pay.
    Flunky: Gee, boss, I agree it's embarrassing but it's nothing to make a federal case over.
    President of Gray Television: Oh yes it is. It so very is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2017 @ 6:55pm

      Re:

      President of Gray Television: And for your information, Flunky, I saw on Techdirt that Bob Murray is doing GREAT with _his_ lawsuit, so, lets get moving on MINE.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    A Non-Mouse, 25 Aug 2017 @ 10:20am

    Then again...

    "Reliance on a patently absurd false statement generally will not give rise to fraud; however, people who are especially gullible, superstitious, or ignorant or who are illiterate may recover damages for fraud if the defendant knew and took advantage of their condition."

    "A TV morning show with decades of asserted trustworthiness does not fit this description."

    They do now!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 25 Aug 2017 @ 10:35am

    Gray Television filed a lawsuit against the pair, alleging fraud, conspiracy, and copyright infringement.

    WAIT! What about RICO? (Checks the lawsuit...)

    They then demonstrated “activities that really anybody can do to promote strength,” like slamming tennis rackets against each other until they broke. They boasted that in their live shows the tennis rackets are on fire when they do the demonstration.

    It IS racketeering!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2017 @ 6:58pm

      Re:

      Look again, this time s-l-o-w-l-y....

      It was "like slamming tennis rackets against each other until they broke" -- that's breaking up rackets, not putting them together to make a new racket (for the RICO charge).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2017 @ 10:39am

    Ignorance

    Seems to me that ignorance is possibly a temporary condition remedied by enlightenment. So it's possible the station was ignorant about the pair at the time. So, doesn't this fit the definition?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    hij (profile), 25 Aug 2017 @ 10:48am

    Somebody trusts the TV news anymore

    The most shocking aspect of this is the idea that anybody still trusts a local TV network. Then again it is surprising that they took time out of their busy schedule of screeching hysteria to broadcast something that might have some level of local interest.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    stderric (profile), 25 Aug 2017 @ 10:54am

    The fraud and conspiracy allegations in the lawsuit attempt to bridge the statutory gap that cruelly leaves butthurt unremedied.

    Bridge it? Hell, they want to wipe away that gap entirely.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 Aug 2017 @ 1:11pm

    Power causes a form of brain damage.

    No one would ever do this to us, because we have doppler.
    Despite other stations getting screwed, we're protected by our radar.
    Our staffers don't need to do anything but look at a PR release, that gives us all the facts we'll report.

    I would think many people should question anything this station reports, they accepted a PR release as gospel & ran with it. No background checking, no fact checking.

    There is a world of pranksters out there, they were lucky these guys weren't actual bad actors. It sounds like the person who booked them could have been talked into locking an intern in the closet & forcing them to strip looking for stolen money (ala the fast food FBI phone scammers).

    Sorry you got high on your own reputation, but a news organization that thinks they aren't a target because they are so important are due for a fall.

    Wasting money on a lawsuit to scare off the next guys isn't gonna help, because it just makes you reach that next level of moronic behavior.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 26 Aug 2017 @ 11:47am

      Re:

      When one takes a steady stream of corporate press releases (or what passes for whitepapers) and police statements as primary source material...

      Yeah.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2017 @ 3:47pm

    Fraud?

    I thought fraud was the crime of using deception to commit theft. What were these guys trying to steal?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 Aug 2017 @ 5:12pm

      Re: Fraud?

      All of the good will they had from...
      "WEAU became the first television station in the market to have its own Doppler weather radar"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      carlb, 25 Aug 2017 @ 6:33pm

      Re: Fraud?

      What were they trying to steal? Airtime. It costs money to buy an advertisement on WEAU. By misrepresenting themselves, they obtained exposure on the station for free, which they could then use to promote whatever they were peddling.

      Easiest way to put a dollar amount on this theft would be to clock how long this appeared on the station, check WEAU's advertising rate card to determine the price of that airtime and assess damages accordingly.

      And yes, make a federal case of this. Broadcast stations are a matter of federal jurisdiction as the signals do not respect state boundaries.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        AnaChronic (profile), 25 Aug 2017 @ 8:32pm

        Re: Re: Fraud?

        If it's so easy, why didn't the station and or its lawyers bother to include any of this in their suit?

        Sounds like they put as much brainpower into this lawsuit as they did vetting their "fraudulent" guests, which is just about zilch.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 26 Aug 2017 @ 9:41am

        Re: Re: Fraud?

        What were they trying to steal? Airtime.

        No, the station still has their airtime. The station remained in full control of their transmitter and these guys never took it away from them. If what these guys did amounts to theft, then the station should have reported them to the police for prosecution. Did they? I didn't think so. Probably because no one there wanted to be arrested for filing a false police report.

        On the other hand, if that counts as theft then I should now report you to the police for stealing my time to read your b.s..

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 26 Aug 2017 @ 12:51pm

        Re: Re: Fraud?

        I bet you're one of those people who call it "stealing" when somebody copies something too.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Aug 2017 @ 2:04pm

    THX TD

    That link to your prev article and ultimatly to improv everywhere was awesome. On part because that link was back in 09 and they still do stuff that is funny.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2017 @ 6:53am

    I am not sure copyright law is more screwed up than any of our other laws.

    A woman burns herself with coffee, wins millions in lawsuit. A cop shoots someone in ridiculous fashion and gets off. A woman who has birth control jelly sues after getting pregnant because she put the drug on her toast and ate it. Wait for the lawsuits to begin because dummies put sunscreen on their eyeballs to watch the eclipse.

    You just can't fix stupid.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anion, 8 Sep 2017 @ 9:06am

      Re: The coffee lawsuit

      I agree with your main point, but the coffee lawsuit doesn't belong in your list. McDonalds was absolutely to blame for that one, and deserved to be sued. Their coffee was served at temperatures around 200F (right on the verge of boiling--coffee is normally served at around 135-150F); they'd received over 700 complaints about it before (some of which also involved third-degree burns) and admitted that they knew the temperature was unsafe, and had known for close to ten years. Their own Quality Assurance manager testified that coffee at that temperature was unfit for consumption due to the serious burns it could and would cause.

      That lady--who was 79 years old--received third-degree burns across her genitals and thighs which required extensive surgery and skin grafts; some of her skin literally fell off, the burns were so bad. Remember, this is the skin on her genitals--imagine how painful that might be. She was a passenger in a parked car when the accident happened due to an improperly fitted lid on the cup. And she'd actually asked McDonalds for just $20k to pay her medical bills, with no compensation for "pain and suffering" or anything else. McDonalds refused (they tried to offer her $800, which is ridiculous), and proceeded to hire a PR firm to push the "irresponsible twit burns herself with coffee and sues, like she didn't know it was supposed to be hot" narrative.

      And the lady's award was partially reduced by the jury, who felt she was "20% responsible" for the accident but that McDonalds' policy of serving coffee at what it absolutely knew was an unsafe temperature was negligent and callous.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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