Journalism You Can Believe In

(Slightly edited since first posted.)

As college pranks go, it does not rival putting a horse in the dean’s office. It was, however, uniquely satisfying to those involved. And when the story was retold a few years ago by one of the perpetrators, I laughed harder than I ever have at anything else.

I will never be able to tell it so well, but here goes.

I attended college in a small Wisconsin town, where our broadcasting classes frequently welcomed local media people to speak. But since none of us planned to spend our lives in a small town like they had, we often wondered what they could possibly say to us that would be worthwhile. We know now, of course, that they deserved more respect than we gave them, although one of them did blow a little harder than he should have. One fine day in class, circa 1980, the publisher of the local newspaper made a bold claim for the quality of the journalism therein: he stood by every last word in it. If it appeared in his paper, it had to be true.

To some radio friends of mine, this was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

A unique feature of the small-town weekly used to be the community news column. Often, the news was extremely mundane: Mrs. So-and-So traveled to Chicago this week to visit her niece, the Such-and-Such’s son has completed basic training and has now been assigned to Fort Hood, and so on. Each small town in the area had a correspondent who collected such information and forwarded it to the paper. Surely it would be fairly easy to sneak a fake item into one of these summaries, thereby proving the publisher’s boast to be hollow.

So my friends concocted a story and sent it to the correspondent for Belmont, a tiny town not far away. And they waited.

When the next week’s paper arrived, two of the perpetrators eagerly scanned the Belmont column, but were disappointed to see that their item did not appear.

Then a third perpetrator glanced at the paper and said, “It’s on the front page.”

Sure enough, under its own headline, next to an item about a couple of locals who had become naturalized citizens and above one about a local florist who had been selected to participate in some kind of design competition, was their item, which read as follows, just as they had written it:

Lassie Visits Belmont
Lassie, the famous film dog, paid a visit to Belmont last Saturday. Mr. and Mrs. Zelmo Beatty, present owners of the dog, visited Mr. and Mrs. Norman Nixon.

Zelmo Beatty and Norm Nixon were prominent pro basketball players. The Nixons did not live in Belmont. My friends had no idea who actually owned Lassie, nor did they care.

One of the guys involved has been a newsman for over 30 years now. Another interned at CNN. Journalists, in other words.

I heard yesterday that the publisher of the newspaper died this week. And I’m sure he really did. If it’s in the paper, it must be true.

4 responses

  1. Said one of the perpetrators to me yesterday, “the publisher has died. Now he knows that Lassie didn’t visit Belmont. He could haunt me for years.”

  2. Damn kids. While you’re at it, get off his lawn.

  3. I still enjoy the time we got one of the new DJs at our college station to play “Star, Star” by the Stones. Then, we called the station and had one of us pretend to be Bill Jorgensen from the FCC. We told him that the station was going to lose its license and he might go to jail. He was not happy the next day when he found out it was a joke. But he did play the song.

  4. […] notable figures from the world of music. On the subject of journalism, we remembered a time when a small-town paper got fooled by a bunch of college boys. On the subject of college, we went back to a […]

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