The Devilish "Barney" Media Hoax

By Gary P. Posner

Barney, the purple dinosaur star of Public Television, might seem the least likely candidate on Earth to be conveying messages from Hell to our children. But that's the point -- and the impetus -- behind a Tampa Bay comedy team's prank that soon mushroomed unexpectedly to national proportions.

John M. Bunch, Jr. and David J. Bennett are known by day on Tampa's University of South Florida campus as graduate students in psychology. By night, their comedy club audiences know them as "The Human Kennel." For a few heady weeks this past February [1994], the media unwittingly introduced them to the world as Luscious M. Bromley and Jack Herman, fundamentalist Christian founders of a group called Citizens Concerned About Barney.

As first reported by the Tampa Bay area TV, radio, and print media, and then nationally by CNN and the Associated Press, front man "Bromley" charged that the loveable, lavender Barney is actually "the most powerful symbol of current evilness that is going to lead this country right down the tubes." Sporting a tacky polyester suit purchased from a thrift store especially for the occasion, "Bromley" deadpanned that Barney's message of "Satanism, occultism and witchcraft" is leading our kids by the hand inexorably toward the slippery slope of "cocaine, gang violence, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, and maybe even marijuana." Perhaps even more dangerously, the mere inference that real dinosaurs existed millions of years ago threatens to undermine the Christian faith: "If one truly believes in the Bible, the world is six thousand years old, period! What we're seeing is the promotion of the evolution theory, and putting in the minds of children that the Bible is not necessary to explain the origin of man."

"Bromley's" Barney bubble finally burst when someone who recognized him tipped off the press. But by then, the many "red flags" raised by the "Kennel's" crazy claims were already creating angst amongst those professionals who had fallen for the bogus bit. Mea culpas began to fill the pages of the local papers, and the Tampa Bay chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists decided to hold a public meeting to discuss "How the Media Got Hoodwinked." (The panel consisted mostly of hoaxed reporters, "Bromley," and myself, as founder of the Tampa Bay Skeptics. See this article about the meeting and subsequent interview of me.)

Conspicuously absent from the gathering was Thomas J. Billitteri, religion editor of the St. Petersburg Times, whose views were clearly expressed in his February 19 column, "Barney hoax is no joke": "Okay, so the two puerile pinheads . . . have had their day. But what a sad commentary on our culture when religious bashing and thinly veiled hate can be viewed by two grown men as 'funny.' . . . every bit as offensive as racial, ethnic or gender stereotyping. . . . Making a laughingstock of . . . fundamentalists . . . is repugnant. . . . It harkens back to an era when Catholics were demonized [and] Jews were driven out of 'Christian' neighborhoods."

But "Bromley"/Bunch, in a letter to the editor, gave back as good as he got: "Puerile? Sometimes. Pinheads? I doubt it. Religious bashing and thinly veiled hate? No way. Since Billitteri has found it necessary to stoop to name-calling, how's about I call him Mr. Hyper-Inflated Pseudo-Intellectual Pumpkinhead? . . . What's wrong with taking a shot at hypocritical, anti-intellectual, old lady's Social-Security-check-grabbing TV preachers?"

Ironically, it was Billitteri -- in a column just three weeks earlier about The Five Gospels, a new book reporting on the research of 78 Bible scholars -- who had informed his readers of the consensus view that Jesus made no claims to being the messiah and that Christianity was the invention of "skilled fiction writers." I pointed out at the SPJ meeting that a few fundamentalist Christians with whom I had discussed this matter found that column infinitely more offensive than they did the Barney hoax. And, interestingly, when I asked for a show of hands, no one on the panel or in the audience expressed agreement with Billitteri's harsh characterization of "The Human Kennel's" devilish dinosaur caper.

[Note: This article appeared as a "News and Comment" feature in the Fall (Sept/Oct) 1994 Skeptical Inquirer.]

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