How Sacha Baron Cohen Duped Ted Koppel for His Showtime Show

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Ted Koppel

The veteran broadcaster, who was tricked into an interview (but didn't sign a release), explains how it happened to him.

Like vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and radio host Joe Walsh, veteran broadcast journalist Ted Koppel was duped by Sacha Baron Cohen for his new Showtime series, Who Is America? 

Koppel was apparently punked by the same character who fooled Palin last November. A producer who said her name was Julia Harris contacted the TV newsman through the publicity department at Random House, which published Koppel's 2016 book Lights Out, about cyber warfare. 

Koppel tells The Hollywood Reporter that he responded to a request from someone representing themselves as a producer on a Showtime project called Age of Reason, which was to feature "conversations with distinguished experts in science and public policy, highlighting the brightest and most reputable minds on today's most important topics." She wrote in her email (read it below) that the program had been picked up for six episodes. 

He never spoke to "Harris" directly, but in mid-November a crew arrived at Koppel's home in Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. Among them was a wheelchair-bound man "with an oxygen tank hanging off one of the handles," recalls Koppel.

Koppel's wife has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can leave sufferers wheelchair-bound and unable to perform basic functions, including walking and getting dressed. 

"I tried to engage him on that subject," says Koppel, "but he seemed confused. He clearly had no idea about what COPD is, and I felt sorry for the guy, which is obviously how you're supposed to feel."

Koppel says the pitch for the show was to have "ordinary folk interviewing the expert" — with Baron Cohen apparently posing as the former. But immediately the man began to press Koppel to admit that the Trump inaugural crowd was the biggest ever.

"When I disagreed, he showed me a photograph on his laptop of a huge inaugural crowd and a man holding a digital clock on a pole," says Koppel. "The clock said 11 p.m. My interviewer pointed out that if the crowd was that huge at 11, hours after the actual inauguration, it had to have been the biggest ever."

Koppel then pointed out the obvious problem with that claim: If it was 11 p.m., why was it still broad daylight? That's when the conversation took an absurd turn. 

"He said maybe it was an eclipse. And I said if it were an eclipse, it would have been dark," notes Koppel. "And he said maybe it was an eclipse of the moon and the sun eclipsed the moon. I said, 'Wait a second. The sun is many millions of miles away from the moon.' At that point, I realized something was really wrong. And that's when I said, 'Guys, I don't want to be rude; you're guests in my home. But we're done. Break down and time to leave.'"

At no point did Koppel sign a release. And he has not heard from "Julia Harris" or anyone else connected with the fake program since the interview. Koppel has worked as a correspondent for CBS News, which is part of CBS Corp., which also owns Showtime. But he has not heard from anyone at CBS or Showtime since Matt Drudge reported July 9 that he was among those "finked" by Baron Cohen. (Koppel initially told THR he was not aware of an encounter with Baron Cohen.)

The veteran newsman has taken the episode in stride. "Everybody loves seeing well-known people get duped," he says. "I relish it too, when it's done well." 

And this is obviously Baron Cohen's raison d'etre. A promo for the program, which bows Sunday on Showtime, has Dick Cheney apparently signing a "waterboarding kit."

David Nevins, Showtime Networks CEO, in a statement announcing the program, said that Baron Cohen "is the premier provocateur of our time but not for the sake of 'gotcha' moments. Behind the elaborate setup is a genuine quest for the truth about people, places and politics." 

Still, it's not unreasonable to question the temerity of employing such a ruse for comedic effect, given the terrible human toll of America's ongoing wars. Koppel, who has been a journalist for half a century, also sounds another note of caution: "I think there's a larger issue here and that is, if there's one thing we don't need any more of in this particular era it's people posing as documentarians. I think there's enough skepticism to go around about people who actually are reporters, who actually are documentarians. And to undermine whatever tiny little bit of confidence might be left by pulling a stunt like this … maybe it will make for a good comedy show. I don't know. But I don't think it helps the overall atmosphere."

Here is the full email from "Julia Harris."

My name is Julia Harris and I am working on a new project to be aired on Showtime called AGE OF REASON (working title). Our show features conversations with distinguished experts in science and public policy, highlighting the brightest and most reputable minds on today's most important topics. Our show has been picked up for 6 episodes, and we are currently in production.

Our project's goal is to cut through the noise and disinformation surrounding today's most important issues in a way that's clear and accessible to everyday Americans. As one of the world's most well-respected media figures who has really seen it all throughout his career, we'd be thrilled to have Mr. Ted Koppel on our program.

As well as the many political points we would love him to help explain (immigration, health care, our current political state, etc.), we would love to hear Mr. Koppel's personal story — his background and how that helped shape his views, and where he sees opportunities and obstacles ahead. We hope to make a real difference in elevating these conversations with facts and reason.

Our team is tentatively scheduled to shoot on Nov. 9th, 12th, and 14th in the Washington, D.C. area. Would Mr. Koppel have time to sit down with us on any of those dates? We'd love to tape with him for 30 mins to an hour if possible but would be grateful for any amount of time he can spare. We would be happy to provide transportation to and from our studio, and if he is not in the D.C. area, we can also provide a first-class plane ticket.

Please don't hesitate to reach out with any questions [phone number redacted].

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