publication date: Aug. 31, 2018
NIH Director Francis Collins tricked into debating disguised Sacha Baron Cohen on Showtime spoof “Who Is America?”
By Paul Goldberg
Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., is a character eerily reminiscent of someone we know, a distant relative who picks political fights on Facebook and Twitter.
He is a big guy with a sniveling smile and bad hair. He rides a motorized scooter with a paperback of Donald Trump’s “The Art of a Deal” displayed in its front basket. He is certain that global warming is a politically correct hoax, that Hillary Clinton is secretly a man, that a dark plot is afoot to make everyone transgender, and that AIDS is a myth perpetuated by what in his rendition sounds like “Big Phurmur.”
His accent is vaguely Southern, but misspellings in his tweets and Facebook posts are vaguely Russian.
Realistic as Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., might appear, he is a fictional character portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen in “Who Is America?” a show that has just finished its first and possibly only season on Showtime.
Last November, Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., rolled into the life of NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., and their sit-down interview aired on Showtime on Aug. 18.
During the episode, Billy Wayne asks Collins to illuminate the conspiracy by Big Agriculture to make Americans transgender by feeding them trans fats.
If Collins smells a rat at this point in the conversation, he doesn’t show it.
“Let me unpack the word ‘trans,’” he begins patiently. “‘Trans’ just means it’s across from. It’s different-than. People talk about trans fats; it turns out those aren’t particularly good for you, because they give you heart attacks.”
Because of the shock of the gender change.
Because they influence this whole process of building up plaque in your arteries that gives you heart attacks and strokes. It has nothing to do with gender.
That settled, the conspiracy theorist confronts the NIH director with the results of his own experiment, which he says demonstrates that AIDS is nothing but a myth.
Billy Wayne says that he paid a homeless man with AIDS $12 to draw his blood, after which—using “exactly the same needle”—he drew his own blood. How about this: if you look at the two blood samples side by side, don’t they look exactly the same?
Now, Collins, who shows no emotion through the “trans” question, seems to be visibly concerned. “Oh my, didn’t you worry about using the same needle that had just been in his arm?” he says as his jaw drops.
I did it intentionally, so there would be no discrepancy and no dispute in the scientific community.
You just put yourself at risk.
Put myself at risk of what?
By sharing a needle with someone who is HIV positive.
In its seven episodes, “Who Is America?” did a great deal more than Trump-bashing. The Right got beat up; the Left got beat up; sundry celebs, picked for reasons other than politics, got beat up.
Some of Baron Cohen’s targets richly deserved being provoked to reveal their true nature, and, of course, one might argue that Collins didn’t deserve this nonsense.
Collins is no one’s political stooge. In fact, he is the only remaining Obama administration presidential appointee to remain in office.
A facile speaker who knows what he is talking about, Collins is not known for gaffes. He is also a skilled performer. He has been seen playing guitar and singing his own material before large crowds at graduations and such.
However, his job description does include confronting nonsense—and, thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen and his scooter-winged conspiracy theorist, we got a robust demonstration of what a scientist should do when confronting stupidity—and, yes, evil.
Is it still true that as long as you keep your facts straight, stay consistent, say what you mean and mean what you say, it shouldn’t matter much whether you are talking to a responsible journalist or an impostor?
Tempted by Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., Collins has demonstrated that this notion still holds true.
As a result, Showtime viewers got their money’s worth. Taxpayers got their money’s worth, too.
AGE OF REASON (working title)
Some might argue that being pranked by Baron Cohen is an honor—unless, of course, you are tricked into making a fool of yourself.
Don’t count on John Burklow, NIH associate director for communications, to agree with this argument.
“Yeah, some people have said, ‘Isn’t this some kind of honor?’” Burklow said to The Cancer Letter. “I think we’d both gladly go back in time and give that honor back to whoever gave that to us, but, well, it really brings up the point: Okay, so what are we going to do now? Do we do things differently?
“I would say, admittedly, I’m a bit gun shy.
“But we’re not going to slow down, we’re not going to stop talking to reporters, talking to the media. And put it in perspective, Francis has done well over a thousand interviews since becoming NIH director nine years ago in August.”
A conversation with Burklow appears here.
NIH director Francis Collins tricked onto the set of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?
Should the NIH press shop have been expected to catch this caper?
Based on interviews and documents The Cancer Letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the answer tilts heavily toward No.
This story begins on Oct. 23, 2017, when a gentleman named Cory Nicks contacted NIH with this request:
His email follows:
My name is Cory Nicks, 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 our country has to offer. 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. By sharing the knowledge and insights of people like Mr. Collins, and institutions like the NIH, we hope to make a real difference in elevating these conversations with facts and reason.
As one of our country’s most decorated and well-respected scientists, we’d be thrilled to have Mr. Collins on our program. We’d like to ask Mr. Collins questions about the NIH, the current research projects he’s most excited about, his history with the Human Genome Project, and the relationship between science and religion.
We have already filmed with several prominent figures from the world of politics and public policy, as well as a Fortune 20 CEO, and leaders from the tech world. Sir Jony Ive is assisting with our project as well.
Our team is tentatively scheduled to shoot on Nov. 9th, 12th, and 14th. Would Mr. Collins have time to sit down with us on any of those dates? We’d love to have him for an hour, if possible, but would be grateful for any amount of time he can spare.
Please reach out with any questions, and I look forward to speaking with you soon.
Showtime is not known for policy wonk shows like, say, NPR or BBC, but in today’s media, it’s not always easy to say who is who and who does what.
Light fact-checking was done: www.hereandnowtelevision.com was in existence, and Cory Nicks had a working phone.
In retrospect, the claim that “Sir Jony Ive is assisting with our project as well” might have been worth looking into.
But, really, who would lie about collaboration with Apple’s design guru? That would be unethical, perhaps even DSMable.
Had Burklow known then what he knows now, he would have used the following search words: “Jony Ive, Sacha Baron Cohen,” which would have produced an episode where the comedian brilliantly spoofs the cultish behavior of Apple crazies to describe his own artistic development.
Readers with a few minutes on their hands might wish to click here.
The NIH staff came back to AGE OF REASON with several follow-up questions:
Thanks for your email. We have a few follow up questions: Can you provide more details about the show? Will each episode focus on a specific topic? How long are the episodes? Will each episode feature interviews with multiple people, or only one person? Can you share the names of those you have interviewed?
To this Cory responded:
Thanks for getting back with me.
Each episode will be 30 mins, and will feature interviews with more than one person.
I’m not sure about the final creative edit, but I believe Mr. Collins will appear in the same episode with other luminaries from the worlds of health and science. It’s also possible we may use footage from interview with Mr. Collins in more than one episode, depending on the breadth of the conversation,
I’m unable to share specific names of people we’ve already interviewed, but they include a former US Attorney General, a Fortune 20 CEO, multiple legislators, and an accomplished Silicon Valley entrepreneur, among others. For our upcoming D.C. swing, we are also working to schedule interviews with prestigious scientific organizations like NASA, the Smithsonian, etc.
Please let me know if you have any further questions, and I’d be happy to hop on a call with yourself and my senior producer at any time.
Collins showed up for filming a few minutes early and was brought into the impromptu studio.
Burklow showed up on time.
While his boss was facing five cameras and one idiot, Burklow interacted with an AGE OF REASON staff member, who gave her name as Julia Harris. This Julia Harris looked and acted like an associate producer from Central Casting, from whence she might well have come.
Collins didn’t recognize the prank immediately. While it’s relatively easy to recognize Baron Cohen’s Borat, Brüno, and Ali G characters, the character of the conspiracy theory-spouting Billy Wayne Rudick Jr., Ph.D., wasn’t publicly known to exist until the show’s debut in July 2018, still about nine months away.
Also, the man’s costume and makeup were convincing.
Baron Cohen portrays Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., a conspiracy theorist.
Duped into hostile territory, smelling a rat (actually, a confederacy of rats), Collins decided to stay on message, keeping self-control, and not storming off the set, which would have made for better television. This lasted for about an hour.
For Collins, there was no joy in it.
“I got set up somehow,” he said as he came out to the waiting area. The producers—including the nice Julia Harris—acted surprised.
“Oh gosh, what’s wrong? What’s wrong?” she said to Collins and Burklow.
After that, the www.hereandnowtelevision.com disappeared from the web, Cory Nicks’s phone was disconnected, and Julia was gone. Collins and Burklow knew they were duped, but by whom, and how badly? All Burklow could do was subscribe to Showtime and wait.
The answer emerged on July 13, two days before “Who Is America?” aired. Former Alaska governor and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin went on national television to report that she had been tricked by Sacha Baron Cohen in his new television show.
“It was supposed to be this big-time Showtime documentary, and it was passed on to me by a speakers’ bureau, which I would assume had done some vetting,” Palin said. “But this—quote unquote—comedian is obviously very good at lying, at duping people.”
This is, of course, true.
Tricking people is not okay in mainstream journalism. Your first step should be to state your name and affiliation.
However, anonymity, in addition to being one of the mainstays of the web, is a way to find out what people really think, whether ugliness and ignorance lurk in their souls—and how they perform in the face of things that are, well, very bad.
Granted, being duped is nightmare for a communications pro like Burklow. But was Collins harmed? He wasn’t, not in the least—because he didn’t allow that to happen.
Collins to Baron Cohen’s character: “You just put yourself at risk. … By sharing a needle with someone who is HIV positive.”
“Dr. Collins handled this well, providing a great example for any physician-scientist being interviewed: no matter what, stay on message and don’t say things that can’t be verified,” Jim Goodwin, chair of the Public Affairs & Marketing Network of national cancer centers and associate director of strategic communication at Washington University Siteman Cancer Center, said to The Cancer Letter. “While this wasn’t a conventional forum for discussing public health, if it brings people into the conversation who otherwise wouldn’t be, I find value in it.
“The more people who know what physicians and researchers do for us, the better.”
Jeffrey Molter, director of communications at NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center, agrees.
“I think Dr. Collins did a fine job of answering the questions posed to him by the interviewer, even though they were all very odd questions about health issues,” Molter said to The Cancer Letter. “Dr. Collins remained calm and composed—and presented medical facts about some untrue assertions and provided some useful health education to viewers.”
The Cancer Letter reached out to Showtime, twice via phone, once via email, but there was no response.
There were no burning questions, but it might have been nice to suggest that Baron Cohen send Collins an autographed screen grab depicting the NIH director struggling mightily to maintain composure as Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., brandishes two “identical” blood samples.