Tonight’s Words3 readings at the Roanoke Symphony facility in downtown offered an opportunity for writers to tell what they know of Roanoke–in any way they wanted.
And they did: poetry, prose, theater and my essay called “Real Fake News.” There was some pretty good stuff, whether Dwayne Yancey’s play-lette on the Mill Mountain Star, cancer survivor Sandee McGlaun’s touching remembrance “Fall, in Love,” Amanda Wright’s poetry or magazine editor Hayleigh Worgam’s contribution from her book.
I’m going to give you my essay because I like it; it’s funny’; it’s topical; it’s true (mostly); it’s irreverent; and it’s my blog. Here goes:
Real Fake News
By Dan Smith
There was a time when newspaper reporters had a good time, when newsrooms were smoky, loud, vulgar and full of practical jokes. Reporters weren’t job-scared and profits ran around 15 percent. The president didn’t believe we were a threat to democracy and nobody even contemplated fake news—well, almost nobody.
I worked in one of those newspapers in downtown Roanoke, on the corner of Campbell Ave. and First Street. This was the morning Roanoke Times, counter to its sister Roanoke World-News, the evening paper. Circulation was about 100,000 in the morning and 35,000 or 40,000 in the evening. Our papers—and I worked for both of them—hit most of the doorsteps in Roanoke and environs and even went well into the coal fields and up the Shenandoah Valley. People liked us, liked to bitch about us, liked to read us with their coffee in the morning.
I began in the sports department, joining 10 other reporters at The Times who had served time at the Asheville Citizen-Times, which was earning a reputation as a farm club for the Roanoke paper. It was also in my hometown. The fraternity was pretty intense among us and it made adjusting to another city easy, though it would not have been difficult in any case, since that was the nature of reporters then. They were not anal retentive.
The sports department was an especially jovial place, busy at night and on game nights, furious. Tuesdays and Fridays during basketball season and Fridays during football season would wind us all up and we’d put out four editions—each different—in about two hours, filled with high school game results. Saturdays, we did college sports pretty much the same way, except that a lot of the reports came from AP, our own staff writers or college PR departments phoning us. I was often on the desk, taking those reports and writing them at a brisk pace. Fridays, I was the prep editor and most often covered a game, rushed back to write it if it wasn’t out of town, then manned the phones, writing 10 to 15 more shorter reports.
When the rush ended, we were all happy-talk exhausted and probably needed a beer, which we couldn’t have. That’s where the practical jokes started.
It was probably the late fall of 1972 or ’73 when the first one happened. High school basketball season had just begun and I suggested we call in a fake game to the Citizen-Times. I was fresh enough out of there to remember who was who and what might be believable. I suggested to Newton Spencer, a copy editor and layout guy, that he be the coach at North Carolina School for the Deaf calling in its game with Drexel High School—both about 40 miles from Asheville—and that this game was to be a shutout. Shutouts don’t happen in basketball, but we were going to do invent one anyway.
Newton made up a bunch of names for the box score—each funnier than the last and not a one of them believable: Doug Out, Tank Topper, Andy One, Shot Blocker, and on and one. The score was 42-0, NCSD and the game had no fouls for either team. Newton took on the personae of the deaf school coach and even affected the speech pattern of one who might have been born deaf. It never occurred to the young reporter in Asheville that they were talking on the phone and that the coach likely would not have been able to hear him if he’d been a real coach and a real deaf person.
Newton said the guy taking the call was beside himself with excitement and took down Newton’s quotes like he was talking to the governor. About five of us were in the background in Roanoke snickering almost uncontrollably as Newton said, “Yes, sir, this is our first shutout in years. Drexel played a great game and we’re really impressed with their outstanding players and their coach’s game plan. Good people over there. Our boys played their butts off, but we got some things we need to work on with our defense.”
The next night, I called my brother in Asheville and asked if he’d seen the report on the shutout and he hadn’t, so we figured somebody in the department checked and found out the story was made up. Sunday evening when I got to work, there was a message that my brother called. Paul said, “That damn story was the lead in Sunday’s sports section. Apparently, you called it in too late for them to make the home edition Saturday, so it ran all four editions Sunday. I can’t believe you guys. Don’t you have jobs?”
‘Course, we’re all in the floor, but Newton called us around him saying, “Shut up a minute. We can’t say anything about this. We’ll all get fired.” And we didn’t. For years. But we did it again in the spring.
This time, we called in the resignation of the Salem Pirates manager to WSLS television and a sports editor named Larry, whose last name escapes me. I remember him as the very definition of a dweeb: short, pudgy, balding, high voice, excitable, lots of green and yellow plaid.
We called Larry at 10:55, five minutes before the news aired at 11. Again Newton was on the phone as the Pirates’ PR guy. “Sorry to call so late, but this just happened,” he said urgently. “John Lipon was so pissed off at our loss tonight that he quit. He’s not even riding the team bus back to Salem.” The team was in Kinston for a three-game series and we reported it had just lost the third straight, this one 15-0. Lipon was something of a hothead—and a good manager—so this was not beyond the realm of the possible.
Newton hung up at 11 o’clock on the nose and Larry had his story. The whole sports department raced out to the news room where there were three TVs—all on different local 11 o’clock news shows—and we gathered around the middle one where the opening music was playing and the camera showed the three anchors, news, weather and sports. It zoomed in on the news guy who announced in dulcet tones, “Tonight’s lead story is from sports, where there are big doin’s from Kinston, North Carolina. What do you have, Larry?”
Larry’s bald head filled the screen and his high adolescent voice says, “Well, Mel, as everybody knows, the Salem Pirates are locked in a losing streak and tonight they lost 15-0 to the powerful Kinston Indians, a team often accused of planting ringers in this class A league. But that’s not the big news. Following the game, Pirates manager John Lipon walked off the field, got into a car and drove off after telling the general manager he was done. More later in the newscast.” We were beside ourselves, causing quite a ruckus in the newsroom. The assistant managing editor, Ed Freakley, yelled, “Would you children get back to the toy store and keep it down!”
Fifteen minutes later, when his segment began, we were gathered at the TV again. Larry didn’t mention the Pirates, Lipon or anything else about Salem baseball. Once again, the whole sports department, in unison, fell over on the floor, howling and holding our sides.
Channel 10 Larry never mentioned the incident again, not even to correct it. I guess he figured nobody was paying attention. And maybe they weren’t. Fake news hadn’t been invented yet.