Lampoon’s harpoons jolt officials
By DAN MARGOLIES
The Kansas City Star
It was meant to be a spoof. But this one fell flat.
An article in this week’s issue of The Pitch, which bills itself as Kansas City’s alternative news weekly, has touched off a mini-furor at City Hall and elsewhere in the community.
The cover story, “Rebel Hell,” contends that nearly two months ago workers excavating the downtown site of the new Sprint Center arena unearthed the grave sites of six Confederate soldiers. It said the discovery had put the project in doubt and had been kept from the public “while city, county and state officials wrestle with the implications for the arena project.”
The article was a hoax, but it had just enough factual elements to sound like the real deal. A Union prison existed on the arena site in the Civil War, and the arena design was, in fact, scaled back a few weeks ago.
The elaborate joke turned out to be a little too subtle — even for some sophisticated readers.
“I was completely sucked in,” said Kansas City Auditor Mark Funkhouser, who’s not known to be especially credulous. “I hate to sound so gullible.”
The editor of The Pitch, C.J. Janovy, acknowledged the article was fictitious. But she and managing editor Tony Ortega, who wrote the article under a pseudonym, were unapologetic.
“We knew exactly what we were doing and were not surprised by the reaction,” said Janovy, adding that The Pitch would explain why it did the piece in next week’s issue.
Not long after the free weekly hit the streets Wednesday — two days before today’s arena groundbreaking — City Hall started fielding calls from confused people.
City Manager Wayne Cauthen issued a news release Thursday assuring the public “that there is no truth to this story.”
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, who is called a “mushmouthed brat” in a concocted quote in the article, was not amused. Among other things, the article took aim at Blunt’s order to fly the Confederate flag over a state historic site on June 5 to mark Confederate Memorial Day.
Jessica Robinson, Blunt’s press secretary, said 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.”
“The article is not only fictitious, it is also offensive,” she said. “The paper should immediately identify the article for what it is and apologize to its readers.”
The hoax, which comes amid heightened public scrutiny of media credibility nationwide, troubled one veteran academician.
“The primary purpose of journalism is to seek truth and report it,” said Ted Frederickson, who teaches media ethics and newspaper reporting at the University of Kansas. “And I’ve always been uncomfortable with things that are deliberately false being put in the paper. I think there is some room for that in opinion columns, when people are doing little parodies or satire, but I think it’s different when you offer something as a news story.”
Ortega said he was taken aback by readers’ failure to recognize the article as satire. Ortega, who penned the story under the pseudonym “Cesar Oman,” said the piece was a visceral reaction to Blunt’s order to fly the Confederate flag.
“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.
“I thought I had to take the concept to its logical extreme and wrap in it the silliness over the arena design, the segregated nature of Kansas City. … Clearly the main point is this Civil War mentality, which is just inexcusable in my mind.”
Assistant City Manager Rich Noll said the groundbreaking ceremony for the $250 million arena would occur as scheduled at 2 p.m. today.
“Our preference would have been for the article to state it was satirical,” Noll said. “It certainly created some stir in the building, I can guarantee you that.”
Officials with Sprint Corp., which has agreed to pay up to $2.5 million a year to have the arena called the Sprint Center, were especially bewildered because, whether by chance or design, a Sprint ad ran opposite the first page of the article.
Sprint executive Bill White said he read the story Wednesday and “didn’t know what the hell it was about.” Gradually, he said, it dawned on him that the article was a spoof.
“The quotes became more and more bizarre, and I didn’t recognize the reporter’s name. I said, ‘This can’t be real.’ ”
Sprint spokeswoman Jennifer Bosshardt said the company would continue its media buys with the publication.
“But we do think it is irresponsible for The Pitch to bring attention to itself through such an egregious hoax, particularly at a time when our community is coming together and celebrating the revitalization of our urban core,” she said.
Although the four-page article reads like a straight news story, sprinkled throughout are hints that it’s fictitious. For example, the story quotes one Fletcher Gray, said to be a history professor at the University of Kansas and author of a “seminal” monograph about the Civil War, Rebel, Rebel, Your Face Is a Mess: Hygiene in the Armies of the West, 1861-1865.
Part of the title comes from the lyrics to a David Bowie song, “Rebel Rebel.” And there is no history professor named Fletcher Gray — as in Rebel gray — at KU.
“Maybe I should have referred to him as Professor Jayhawker,” Ortega said. “I thought we put in enough ‘tells’ to give it away, but maybe it was too subtle.”
The Pitch is owned by New Times Inc. of Phoenix. Ortega said other New Times publications had run similar satirical pieces. Several years ago a judge and prosecutor sued the Dallas Observer, a New Times publication, over a fictional article about a 6-year-old girl getting arrested for a book report. The case went up to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled that the article was recognizable as satire and did not libel the two officials, who were involved in a similar real-life case.