Anatomy of an April Fool’s story gone awry

A river runs through it

By Dan McDermott
and half the town
Warren County Report

A couple of days before we printed our last issue I pondered what to do for our annual April Fool’s story.

What could possibly go wrong?

To work, an April Fools story has to be a bit plausible. Burger King once put out a story that they were introducing a left-handed Whopper that would be easier for left-handed people to eat.

People ordered it.

The BBC once did a science story explaining that the Earth would feel a slight reduction in the normal gravitational pull due to a peculiar and rare alignment of the planets at a certain time of day. They invited people to call in if they experienced anything unusual.

People called. One guy said he was floating around the room.

Two years ago Roger Bianchini wrote that a small perpetual motion toy built big enough could produce enough energy that in mass production could power, first the town and then the world.

Some people believed it.

So this year I had the brilliant idea to write a story that the town of Front Royal was selling the Shenandoah River to Frederick County which would drain it over a 16-year period.

We are still getting calls.

The emails, calls, Facebook posts, tweets and text messages started immediately.

Town manager Michael Graham gets about 15 calls a day about the story and even had to calm the nerves of a group of doctors – yes, medical doctors – at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Kernstown, who were upset about the sale.

Sheriff Daniel McEathron said it was a big topic at his church.

The police department got calls.

The Visitor’s Center got calls and, ironically, visitors up in arms.

People stormed into town hall demanding answers from a staff holding back tears of laughter.

Council members and the mayor got calls … Lots of calls.

When I originally wrote the first part of the story and sent it to Roger to fill in with some more quotes, all of which were entirely made-up, my instructions were to make it sound like a real story but with such an absurd premise we never thought anyone would believe it for more than about 5 paragraphs.

We then experienced what I call the “headline phenomenon.” If you are in a restaurant, coffee shop, or bar and listen to people around you discussing the issues of the day, you will often realize that they are arguing about headlines. Often people read a headline and maybe the first paragraph and then launch into spirited debate, vigorously defending their position even though they haven’t read the article.

The best example of this, although it is an extreme one, is the recently enacted health care reform bill. Everyone I know had an opinion and was eager to share it. Although none of us had read the bill. Many people I spoke to could recite what they had heard about the bill from Hannity or Huffington but often these people couldn’t name more than one or two of the main parts of the bill.

We figured that people would read the river story, which is quite funny if I do say so myself, and have a good laugh.

Many people took it in stride.

In the story I wrote that Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek said the sale made sense and that President Reagan would have sold the river decades ago and described Hrbek as looking misty-eyed at a portrait of the Gipper on his office wall.

Hrbek called us but was laughing so continuously that we could hardly understand his offer of a website video interview to explain his position on the “sale.”

Roger wrote that local Tea Party founder Tim Ratigan was concerned that if they sold the river he would have no place to dump his tea.

Ratigan responded on my Facebook page that he stood by his comment although he didn’t remember making it.

Some officials were upset that we hadn’t made up quotes from them in the story.

Perhaps the most surprising reaction was from John Kovacs, who gave Roger the idea for the aformentioned “toy to power the world” April Fool’s story. – “You got me Roger. I can’t believe you got me!” he said. “You of all people,” Roger replied. “That’s what my wife said,” Kovac admitted.

I would like to say that I apologize to anyone who got upset at our joke.

I also worry how on earth we are going to top this next year.

In fairness to all those who praised and attacked us, I will print all the comments I can find from our website,, and my Facebook page in their entirety.

The public weighs in:

This is totally unbelievable!! Or perhaps it is given the control of the Town Council by right-wing businessmen whose view of Front Royal and Warren County appears to be one of numerous box stores that profit themselves or their clients while stripping the natural attractions and rural character that made the area a draw for tourists. And for the mayor to so cavalierly dismiss the major recreation draw of canoeing is amazing! And the extremist wingnuts who seem to infest our area are only concerned about not getting enough money for the sale! No wonder Front Royal government is the laughing stock of the region and the state! Who needs the Shenandoah River – lets drain it all, pave over the Blue Ridge and just build more strip malls.
– Roy

I have to assume the date of this article (April 1st) is an indication of the seriousness of this proposal…right?
– Leo

Reply: date, clue…apparently not to some (many-some)
– Roger

Mr. Bianchini, let me tell you about my very bad day. My grandmother was buried today at 3:00pm. You may wonder what this has to do with an article about the sale of Warren County’s portion of the Shenandoah River for a paltry $2.4 million, but suffice to say that I am sentimental about our river, not least of all because the haunting strains of the classic folk song of the same name was my grandmother’s favorite. Imagine my dismay this evening when, after one of the most stressful days of my life, I finally relaxed to spend a few minutes reading the WCR and learned that our town council had cavalierly decided that the river was more upkeep than it was worth. I was astonished to read that the Shenandoah failed to pull its weight fiscally or industrially, and would be sold — for development! (Worse yet, did I understand correctly that it would be *drained* over a 16-year period!? Insanity! Was it even *possible* to drain a river? Well, I guess if we put a man on the moon, engineers can drain a river… ) I just could not believe my eyes. The irrational, short-sighted, impractical lunacy! As I read, my dismay turned to outrage and my outrage to fury at the flippant remarks by council members.
I snatched up the paper and stormed across the street to the Visitor’s Center to demand an explanation from them of the town’s hare-brained fundraising scheme. They told me that they were as amazed by the headline as I was, but hadn’t had time to read the article yet. Because of the date, we studied the piece for something that would definitively signal a prank. We scanned the paper version and the web site for some solid indication of trickery. Everyone agreed on two things: 1) although outrageous, it was not outside the realm of possibility that our squabbling, cash-strapped council actually could be contemplating such a deal, and 2) if it was an April Fool’s joke, it really crossed a journalistic line of poor taste. A joke is one thing, but an alarmist article during a period of political volatility and economic and environmental crisis (complete with quotes implying the complicity of the town council) is something different, and a compromise of the WCR’s journalistic integrity (a term I use loosely). I told the FRVC staff that either way, someone needed an ass-kicking over this. If it was a joke, that someone was you, Mr. Bianchini. And if it wasn’t a joke, then it was clearly the town council. With the mood I was in, after the day I had had, I felt ready to lawyer up and administer it.
Since no one at the FRVC was certain about the article, I set out to find a town council member. I took the paper to Town Hall and encountered a receptionist whose face fell as she saw what I had in my hand. I imagine I looked wild-eyed and dangerous by that point, and she quickly assured me that it was indeed a joke and that the town council knew “absolutely nothing about it.” But a few seconds later, in her haste to reassure me, she added “they hoped people would react this way” — alluding, I assume, to the now vastly preferable alternative of closing our budgetary shortfall with a tax hike of a whopping $20.00 per year. Was that the plan, then? To stir up such outrage that citizens would be *grateful* to have their taxes raised? Well if so, here’s something you (and the council) might find surprising. Although I’m a county resident, I would have gladly agreed to a special assessment (or to having my taxes raised ) to close the budgetary shortfall to keep the town of Front Royal on solid footing — *before* that irresponsible article nearly gave me a seizure. I guess because of the racket the Tea Party makes, there is a mistaken impression among elected officials that the average citizen is indulging anarchist, tax-free fantasies (until the snow comes, of course, when we will want our streets cleared). Wrong. There was no need to stoop to such a nasty trick. All the council had to do was ask.
Mr. Bianchini, there is a difference between reporting that a wind-up toy is the next big thing in green energy, and pushing hot-button issues by telling us that our town council has decided to resolve our budgetary shortfall by sacrificing a historic natural resource to development. I’m sure I’m not the only person who will be alarmed and amazed by your very un-funny April Fools joke. Consider your ass officially kicked.
– Laura

And one more thing now that I’ve got that out of my system — I’m sure when I’m feeling better tomorrow, it will seem funnier.
– Laura

Reply: thank you, I needed that.
PS it wasn’t a wind-up toy, it was a perpetual motion toy propelled by water to the bird’s beak in some mysterious, physics thing that still eludes me….at any rate thank you for being such a long-time reader as to remember the last 4-1 WCR headline
PPS sorry to hear about your grandmother, I’ve always loved that song too.
– Roger

Yes, sorry about that rant. Bad day. Joke did not seem funny. Much funnier several days later.
– Laura

Reply: did it?
– Roger

Yes, I can actually laugh at it now, since I’m reasonably well assured that nobody plans to drain it.
– Laura

I stand by my comment! Al though I don’t really remember commenting on it. Oh well.
– Tim
Reply: things always get a little hazy on April 1, Tim.
– Roger

Wise leader of the party it’s not Al though it’s although ~ one word!!!
– Bill

I thought the article was great! I believed it at first but then got to the draining part and realized it was an April Fools. Good one, I saw the humor. Jonathan Swift would be proud.
– Molly

In all my years, & that’s a lot, I’ve never seen so many people fooled by a practical joke, April fools or other, and my hats off to WCR for that accomplishment. I don’t think that success will have much impact on their professional reputation ~ good or bad. Maybe on they’re hat size but not their journalism ability.
I hope & believe that those who were fooled & angered will get over it and, with a little time, be able to look back & laugh at themselves. Laughter is the best medicine & to laugh @ yourself a good indicator of judgment.
– Bill

just two questions!! whose idea was it? Did the reporter know in advance it was an april 1st joke?
who is the fool here.?? my wife totally believed it given all the foolish things the council has done the last few years…could not stop with only one question
– Jack

I’m of the opinion it was the WCR alone. Their the only ones wise enough. They pulled the wool over everyone else’s eyes.
– Bill

I’m appalled that anyone was fooled.
– Mark

I’m appalled that anyone could believe in draining a river that size. Oh well????
– Bill

Oh, I was totally fooled! Granted, I was having a very bad day and not exactly thinking straight, but I figured, “Hell, if they can put a man on the moon, they can drain a (shallow) river!” But I confess did wonder what on earth the downstream counties would have to say about it.
– Laura

I have up to now been a loyal member of the Friends of Shenandoah River State Park. This is so discouraging. Now we’ll have to move to Frederick County.
– Richard

I am writing in response to the April Fools Day report.
I found your fictional report to be non-comical. If you are interested in becoming the leading news paper for Front Royal and surrounding areas, you certainly did not make a good judgment call this past week. I have been a reader of the Warren County Report for almost two years, and assumed articles written would convey truthful statements and real issues. While the quotes used were “real”, they were used from previous issues, and were taken out of context. I thought the idea to be clever, and it would have been amusing if you had included one last line to your article, “April Fools Day”.
I feel the quotes that were used were from trusted, politicians from the community that should not have been used in that fashion.
Considering you may be looking for other articles, please consider some friendly advice:
The community likes to read about themselves, newsworthy articles that are not full of politics. The Warren Report should broaden the topics of interest. It seems The Warren Report feels compelled to report every quote made by politicians, maybe The Warren Report should also consider some interesting articles of news happenings in the area.
In conclusion, I would like to say, please use professionalism and ethics when considering another joke for your paper, after all, we (the readers) enjoy a good laugh and do appreciate your creativity.
– Debbi

[Editor’s note: all of the quotes in the story (and all of the facts) were completely made up. Total fiction.]

Why is Front Royal selling the Shenandoah River to Frederick County? Doesn’t Front Royal get their water from the river? What about the businesses in the 522/340 corridor? Doesn’t Front Royal supply them with water? Will this raise the rate for water???
– Dawn

ok front royal cannot sell the river, that story was a complete april fools joke by roger. unfortunately he did not put that disclaimer in his paper.
– Jennifer

I hope so? Didn’t make sense. Thanks Jennifer.
– Dawn

Yeah..It was an April Fool’s joke. lol What makes it so funny is that they didn’t say it was a joke. Don’t worry. Our river isn’t going anywhere!! 🙂
– Leslie

I am all ready to go and petition or stand at the courthouse or anything I have to do to stop this nonsense!!! I hope everyone in this town realizes how important this could become. I love our Shenandoah River!!!
– Ron

– Tammy

[Read the original April Fool’s story.]

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  1. I came across this article which conducting environmental research in Front Royal. I have lived in Front Royal approx. 2 months and frequently enjoy the river. I have been on a rant since Friday.. with no where to turn. I do not know the council members and had no Idea who I could speak with. Needless to say, I have a nice list of environmental protection groups and lobbist that I had gathered for dispersal of the “funny article”. This article seemed like something done in a backwoods town, I put nothing past the greed of humans. Luckily today, searching for additional information, I came across the explaination article. Might have been a funny piece if I knew the people around here.. its been three months since the posting of the “joke” could someone access the word press doc and modify the article to indicate it as an April fools joke? That could stop the calls and possible legal issues.

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