For the record, I didn't participate in any of the April Fool's Day satire at OnMilwaukee.com.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of satire. I love the Onion's humor and Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" is part of my nightly ritual.
There's a long history of this once-a-year fakery. NPR has a tradition of peppering its broadcast day with phony stories, and it's a staple of college newspapers. The broadcast version of the traditional April Fool's joke was pioneered by the BBC 53 years ago with a mock documentary about the supposed spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland.
But for both personal and professional reasons, I just couldn't take part in OnMilwaukee.com's annual ritual of hyper-local humor.
Let me start by explaining the personal reason I get goosebumps around a faked news story.
It goes back to to my first post-college job, at the old City News Bureau of Chicago in the late 1970s. I was only 22, but for a number of reasons I got a field promotion to night city editor at the wire service, running a staff of police reporters and rewrite folk covering the city.
The first week went well, and by Friday I felt relaxed enough to lower the discipline in the office.
City News had something of a military feel, with reporters kept on a relatively short leash, under the control of slightly more experienced rewrites who had a penchant for asking demanding questions. In fact, some of the teletype operators who clicked and clacked away, sending the news to the city's print and broadcast outlets, were military veterans who'd learned their trade in the service.
So, I let things get relaxed. So relaxed that at one point I saw one of the teletypists produce a six-pack of beer. But I wasn't quite clear on how loose things had become until the phone rang on the City Desk. The call came from the desk over at the Chicago Sun-Times, where a guy I knew was checking the wires and decided to read me the latest "bulletin" that had come from City News.
"City News Bureau Night City Editor Tim Cuprisin was overthrown tonight in a bloody coup d'etat," he read.
"You guys must be havin' a helluva good time over there tonight," he added.
I broke out in a cold sweat as I looked across the office at our receptionist, a guy named Leo, sitting at the teletype keyboard banging away like it was an old piano.
I barked his name, and one of the teletypists, a former Navy guy name Pedro, loped across the office and pushed Leo away from the old machine that sent our dispatches out to newsrooms across the city. Pedro banged out a message to disregard the previous bulletin.
But, of course, it was out there.
I spent that weekend convinced that my nascent journalism career was over. Walking into the office the following Monday, I expected to be called in to the managing editor's office and told to look for another job -- or even another line of work.
But I heard nothing.
The fact that things went out of control on a Friday night probably saved me. The big guns weren't around in the city's newsrooms, and weekend crews didn't care much about a silly fake bulletin from City News.
Still, it put the fear of God into me. The mere idea of writing a fake news story still sends chills up and down my spine.
Thirty years after that near-career ender, there's another layer to my fear of fake news. Spending half of my career writing about media, I've seen the doubt about what professional journalists do.
Most of the criticism is directed at some perceived "bias." Generally, that's really criticism of opinions or even facts that don't gibe with the reader's point of view.
But the accuracy and truthfulness of what we do as journalists is questioned on a daily basis, and I feel queasy about purposely writing something that isn't accurate and truthful.
The facts I write are as true as I can make them. My opinions, of course, are my own.
I made my concerns known to Andy Tarnoff, the publisher of OnMilwaukee.com and, to his credit, he understood. He offered me the option of not taking part and, instead, explaining myself. I jumped at the opportunity.
Coincidentally, April 1 marked my six-month anniversary at OnMilwaukee.com. I have to say that I have no regrets about leaving the world of print journalism. Andy's handling of this reaffirmed my decision.
And, yes, I laughed at the satire of yesterday's April Fool's edition.
But I laughed from a safe distance.
Tim Cuprisin is the media columnist for OnMilwaukee.com. He's been a journalist for 30 years, starting in 1979 as a police reporter at the old City News Bureau of Chicago, a legendary wire service that's the reputed source of the journalistic maxim "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." He spent a couple years in the mean streets of his native Chicago, and then moved on to the Green Bay Press-Gazette and USA Today, before coming to the Milwaukee Journal in 1986.
A general assignment reporter, Cuprisin traveled Eastern Europe on several projects, starting with a look at Poland after five years of martial law, and a tour of six countries in the region after the Berlin Wall opened and Communism fell. He spent six weeks traversing the lands of the former Yugoslavia in 1994, linking Milwaukee Serbs, Croats and Bosnians with their war-torn homeland.
In the fall of 1994, a lifetime of serious television viewing earned him a daily column in the Milwaukee Journal (and, later the Journal Sentinel) focusing on TV and radio. For 15 years, he has chronicled the changes rocking broadcasting, both nationally and in Milwaukee, an effort he continues at OnMilwaukee.com.
When he's not watching TV, Cuprisin enjoys tending to his vegetable garden in the backyard of his home in Whitefish Bay, cooking and traveling.