Dave Barry's Humor Column No Joke to ATA

Syndicated columnist Dave Barry's Aug. 31 article on telemarketers may have been in jest, but it's been no laughing matter to the American Teleservices Association, which blames the article for jamming up its toll-free number.

Barry's article, titled “Ask not what telemarketers can do to you” in the Miami Herald where it was originally published, included the ATA's toll-free telephone number and invited readers to call and “tell them what you think.” Hundreds of newspapers also published the article, which was distributed by Tribune Media Services.

The article generated thousands of phone calls to the ATA number, said Tim Searcy, ATA executive director. As a result, the association switched the number, which it formerly answered live, to a voice recording. The recording advises callers that the organization is unable to take the call because of “overwhelming positive response to recent media” and asks that they leave a message.

Some of the calls were from people in the teleservices industry offering their support, he said. Others were negative, and some contained profanity.

The ATA received no warning about the article from Barry or anyone connected with him, Searcy said. The association first learned about the column when it received calls from fact checkers at about 100 newspapers checking whether the phone number was correct prior to printing the article.

Though meant as a prank, the Barry column has had harmful consequences for the ATA, Searcy said. An ATA staffer has spent about five hours a day for the past six days monitoring the voice mail and clearing out messages.

Nevertheless, Searcy said the effect on the ATA has been minimal and that it hasn't complained to Barry or taken follow-up action.

A spokeswoman for Tribune Media Services said efforts by Tribune Media to contact Barry's representatives for comment were unsuccessful yesterday.

“I certainly respect First Amendment rights,” Searcy said. “Those are the same rights we're fighting for right now.”

Calls appeared to slow near the end of the week after the article initially published but seem to have surged again this week as more newspapers printed the Barry piece, Searcy said. He said he expected the calls to last another few weeks and had no plans to change the ATA phone number.

“If it continues for a greater period of time, we might have to choose another solution,” he said.

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