Journo Hoax Works a Little Too Well

Apparently unaware that April Fool’s Day was 13 weeks ago, the Kansas City alternative weekly The Pitch caused an uproar last week with a cover story that described in intimate detail the hitherto secret discovery of the remains of Confederate soldiers at an arena construction site.

The long piece, “Rebel Hell,” featured anonymous government officials and breathless news, with all the veneer of an investigative report:

On April 25, workers digging at the site of the former UMB Bank branch at Grand Avenue and Truman Road discovered human remains and immediately contacted authorities, records obtained by the Pitch show. The unearthing of what turned out to be multiple grave sites has been kept from the public while city, county and state officials wrestle with the implications for the arena project.

The problem? The report was a hoax — but one so well-executed that some readers and even local leaders fell for it. The byline of “Cesar Oman” (actually a pseudonym for managing editor Tony Ortega) was unusual, and many of the ensuing details and quotes were outlandish, but it was billed as a straight news story — coming two days before the actual groundbreaking for the new Sprint Center downtown. “I was completely sucked in,” City Auditor Mark Funkhouser told the Kansas City Star. City Manager Wayne Cauthen felt compelled to issue a press release assuring citizens “that there is no truth to this story,” and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt’s press secretary told the Star she was “extremely disappointed that a publication purporting to be a news outlet would print a satirical, fantastical article and not identify it as such.”

Ortega told the Star that the deadpan spoof was primarily in response to the governor’s earlier order to fly the Confederate flag at a state historic site on Confederate Memorial Day. “I truly didn’t know how else to deal with our governor approving the flying of the Confederate flag over state land,” Ortega said. “I figured an editorial or column wouldn’t do it.” Pitch editor C.J. Janovy added that the publication would explain its rationale for the piece in its next issue.

That explanation came yesterday, and it is remarkably adolescent. In his column, “Kansas City Strip,” Ortega asks, in a “Gotcha, suckers!” way, if it is really possible for the Pitch to convince its readers that, for example, “its new downtown arena will be redesigned as a memorial to Confederate war dead,” or “That Confederate heritage groups plan to re-enact the deaths of six rebel soldiers killed at the hands of angry Kansas City prostitutes?”

Well, yes, apparently it is.

Let us count the ways in which this is wrong. It was bad enough that the spoof took cheap shots at politicians, put words in their mouths, and betrayed readers’ trust at a time when the media’s credibility is at an ebb. But the official explanation — that the Pitch raised “Rebel Hell” just because it could — is simply inexcusable. Journalism has enough problems without inventing pranks that suck in both citizens and government officials.

There is a place in journalism for both smart social commentary and an irreverent take on local buffoonery in office. But fooling your readers, and then hooting at them for being fooled, qualifies as neither.

—Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.