Thou shalt not write hoaxes

The fact a Nebraska football fan may face criminal charges for posting a bogus Internet story regarding two Oklahoma players reminded me of something I almost had forgotten:

I was young and stupid once.

I was never as stupid as James W. Conradt, though. He's the Cornhusker fan who allegedly acquired a template from an Oklahoma newspaper's website and manufactured a credible-looking article about two Sooners being arrested for distributing cocaine. He then posted the hoax article on an Internet message board.

The elaborate joke backfired when two Texas radio stations picked up the bogus Internet report and repeated it on the air. The fake article was deleted, but the father of one of the OU players is threatening legal action against Conradt.

I'm happy to say I was never involved in anything as blatantly moronic as Conradt's disaster but I was part of a news "hoax" many years ago.

One of the sports interns at The Knoxville Journal during my 17 years there was a young fellow named Chip. One night, as deadline approached, a fellow sports writer asked me if our section was ready for press.

"Unless Willie Mays dies," I replied.

My co-worker smiled, nodded and headed for home.

Chip immediately walked over to my desk.

"Is Willie Mays sick?" he asked.

"No," I said, unable to stifle a smug grin. "That's just my way of saying that the sports section is ready to go to press, unless something earth-shaking – like the death of a famous sports figure – happens between now and deadline."

Chip smiled and nodded.

Our sports-layout man during this time was a fellow named Mark. Mark was a terrific guy but he tended to get a bit frazzled as deadline approached. One night when Mark was particularly keyed up, Chip stopped by my desk.

"I want to play a joke on Mark," he said, grinning mischievously.

"What kind of joke?" I asked.

"I want him to think Willie Mays just died," Chip replied. "How would I do that?"

I told Chip the best way would be to go to the top of the sports wire and type something along the lines of "Bulletin: Baseball Great Willie Mays Dead. Details to follow ..."

Chip grinned broadly and started to walk away.

"Wait, Chip," I said. "Make sure you write a second paragraph so ridiculous that Mark immediately realizes it's a prank and not a real story. OK?"

Chip nodded.

Maybe five minutes later, the city editor strode into the sports department.

"We're going to use the story about Willie Mays' death on Page 1," he said.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I stammered.

"Will ... Will ... Willie Mays isn't dead," I said.

"Yes, he is," the city editor replied. "It just came across on the sports wire." (Heck, I never knew the folks on the news desk checked the sports wire.)

"No, he's not," I said. "That was just a little joke we played on Mark. We never dreamed anybody would take it seriously."

"Well, I took it seriously enough to call the publisher at 1 o'clock in the morning to see if he wanted to remake Page 1," the city editor snapped, giving me his most menacing glare.

"Well, it was only a joke," I said. "It was all in fun."

"I don't think it was very damned funny," the city editor snarled. "And I don't believe Ron (the publisher) will, either."

As the city editor turned and stormed back toward the news room, I wondered if my career at The Journal was nearing its end. After three minutes that seemed more like three hours, The Journal's design editor showed up at the sports department door.

"I just got off the phone with Ron, telling him that the Willie Mays story was a joke," the design editor said. "He actually thought it was kind of funny. But I wouldn't try another stunt like that if I were you guys."

Twenty years later, I haven't tried another stunt like that. The printed word is too powerful a weapon to be trifled with.

Obviously, James W. Conradt had to learn that lesson the hard way.

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