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MIT students hacks "Morton Downey Jr. Show"

By Andrew L. Fish and Annabelle Boyd

An MIT undergraduate apparently pulled off a nationwide hoax on the syndicated Morton Downey Jr. television show. Christopher F. Coon '90 said he masqueraded as a representative of a controversial group which protects relationships, including sexual ones, between men and boys.

Coon appeared on the program claiming to be a member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). The show, which aired in Boston last Friday, featured Coon (who was referred to only by his first name) along with clinical psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers.

Coon defended NAMBLA, which he later called "the worst possible organization around," during the hour-long show, facing an often hostile audience, some of whom threatened him with bodily harm.

The stunt was intended to attack "the show, the host, and the format," Coon said in an interview with The Tech. He called the show "obnoxious and disgusting."

Bill Boggs, executive producer of the program, said, "We have reason to believe he is what he says. Otherwise he's a boldfaced liar." Boggs said the show "had some verification" that Coon was a member, though he would not elaborate.

Boggs said Coon maintained his story in conversations yesterday, after both were contacted by The Tech. Boggs said he warned Coon that he would be in "hot water" if he was lying.

Coon told The Tech that if he felt seriously threatened by a lawsuit, he would change his story and claim to be a member of NAMBLA.

But Coon said, "You can't print that I'm a member of NAMBLA because I'm not."

The program's producers could not have verified whether or not Coon was a member of NAMBLA by contacting the organization, according to Christopher Farrell, a spokesman for NAMBLA in New York. They "never discuss whether or not a person is a member of [their] organization," he said. Therefore, he could neither confirm nor deny whether Coon had an affiliation with the group.

About a year ago, the Downey show's producers contacted NAMBLA and inquired whether a member of their organization would be willing to appear on the show, Farrell said. At the time, no one was willing to go. NAMBLA had not heard from the producers since, and Farrell was surprised to see that the organization would be discussed on the program.

The NAMBLA program was aired in New York last night, and earlier in the day Boggs said it would be shown nationwide as well. Boston and a few other stations air the show one business day before the rest of the nation, he said.

Coon looked for story to get him on talk show

Coon, who has acted in several Dramashop performances and on MIT student cable television, came up with the idea to appear on a "trash TV" talk show after he heard about a couple who faked their way onto the Oprah Winfrey show [see sidebar].

Coon said he, along with Timothy D. Tuttle '90 and Jory D. Bell '89 (also members of the cable group), brainstormed for ideas of possible identities and affiliations.

But Tuttle said it was Coon's idea to appear on a talk show, and he was involved only after Coon met with a producer of the Downey show. "Where plans were made and concerned I wasn't involved as much as he may say," Tuttle said.

Bell refused to comment.

In order to exploit the "trash TV" format and to challenge his acting abilities, Coon wanted to go on a talk show as a member of the the most outlandish organization he could find. After discarding Satan-worshipping groups as "too common," Coon decided to investigate groups which supported child molesting.

His research lead him to the MIT Humanities Library where he discovered The Age Taboo, a collection of essays edited by Daniel Tsang. This book not only laid out the philosophical foundation behind NAMBLA, but also included an address in the back of the book where the organization could be contacted.

"Freak coincidence" sets up hack

In early November, while attending a student cable television conference at Brown University, Coon, in what he called a "freak coincidence," met a producer of the Morton Downey Jr. show. Coon decided to test the strength of his prank, and mentioned to the producer that he was affiliated with NAMBLA. After a short conversation, the producer encouraged Coon to appear on the show.

Boggs, the producer, confirmed this account. "As soon as I heard he was a member, I tried to get him on the show." He explained that it was difficult to get guests from such organizations. "Four or five phone conversations" ensued, and Coon was finally booked for the show, Boggs said.

"I don't think this guy came to me with the subtext of pulling this off," Boggs said. "My sense is that he is a NAMBLA activist."

A little later in November, Coon said he called up the Downey show and confirmed that he would like to go on the show as a member of NAMBLA. Coon was told by a producer to send in NAMBLA's literature, and the show would consider him.

To obtain the necessary pamphlets and magazines, Coon said he wrote to NAMBLA for information and even went to the home of a NAMBLA member in Queens, NY, to pick up one of NAMBLA's monthly magazines (which Downey tore up on the show). In early December, Coon sent all of his collected information to the show.

Another producer contacted Coon in early January to say that the show had received his literature and was interested in having Coon go on the air. But Downey wanted Coon to bring several members of NAMBLA with him to appear in the studio audience. Both Tuttle and Bell refused to go on the show, Coon said, so he told the producer he could not get other NAMBLA members to go on the air.

Tuttle said that in December he "hesitantly" told Coon that he would be willing to appear on the show as a NAMBLA representative, even though he was not member of the organization. But Tuttle later decided he did not "want to face the hostility of the audience" and refused to appear.

Coon makes appearance

On Feb. 3, Downey's staff called Coon and invited him on the show. Coon agreed to appear. In compensation, the show sent Coon a round-trip airplane ticket and drove him from the airport to the studio in a limousine.

According to Coon, he arrived at the New Jersey studio at around 5 pm on Feb. 7. One of Downey's staff then placed Coon alone in a room to wait until the taping time of 7 pm. Though he requested to mingle with the other guests on the show, Coon was kept by himself in the room until showtime, and was visited twice by a producer. The first time, the producer briefed Coon on his arguments and on the show's format. The second time, the producer gave Coon the show's consent forms to sign.

"Using a pseudonym," Coon signed the Downey show's consent forms which stated that he was telling the truth about his identity and organization, Coon said. Coon did use his real first name on the program, however. While Boggs did not have the form available, he said that Coon also used his real last name when dealing with the show.

"The only precaution the Downey people took before allowing me on the set was walking me through a metal detector," Coon said.

When Coon went on the show, he said he felt like he was playing a character. "I was not nervous, but was worried that I would not be able to control my laughter."

Coon, who despises what NAMBLA stands for ("NAMBLA is the worst possible organization around"), felt that the experience was "tremendously funny and ironic" though the questions "caught him off-guard, a bit." He had expected Downey to ask him more generalized questions about NAMBLA and its beliefs -- not such personal questions about his experiences and beliefs.

Ends up defending NAMBLA

Under Downey's personal line of questioning, Coon -- who had originally hoped to be as outrageous as possible on the show -- toned down his performance, worried about the long-term implications of the consent form and in the short-term "a group of policemen arresting [him] right after the show for [his] purported child-molesting activities."

Tuttle called Coon's appearance "an interesting prank." "It goes to show you who can get on the show if they want to."

Coon said that the experience was "the greatest feeling of power, just like playing a character." The insults from the audience or Downey didn't "affect me because I was a character," he said.

The strangest thing about the entire experience was that "I defended [NAMBLA] better than I intended."

(Editor's note: Seth Gordon, Prabhat Mehta, and Harold A. Stern contributed to this article.)