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Jack Smith

Lifting Veil on 'Trust-Me' Journalism

November 25, 1987|Jack Smith

My recent recollection here of minor hoaxes perpetrated in newspapers by cynical employees has brought a stern reproach from the syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick.

Kilpatrick refers to my column as "a chuckler" and explains that "in the trade, a chuckler is a funny or a ho-ho."

My chuckler included Phlange Welder, a nonexistent socialite who came to life in the society columns of The Times many years ago, and Victor Frisbie, a Rose Bowl spectator quoted in many guises by Morrie Godchaux, who took Frisbie with him from The Times to the Examiner.

I confessed that I myself, one rainy Sunday when I had the dreary task of taking down rainfall figures from our Southland correspondents (who were paid 75 cents per entry, and whom I suspected of padding their lists with imaginary towns, such as Buzzard Flats, to fatten their paychecks) added Smith Flats to the list, just to prove its vulnerability.

Kilpatrick concedes that the invented personalities in my stories "were the harmless creatures of city room jokesters; we can chuckle at the yarns and tell them with pleasure at a press club bar."

His true target is what he calls the "trust me" journalism of Bob Woodward's new book, "Veil," an expose of the CIA based largely on Woodward's undocumented conversations with its late director, William Casey.

"Forgive a personal word," Kilpatrick says. "I am now in my 47th year as a professional newspaperman. Ours is a wonderful craft. I am proud of it, but I detest trust-me journalism.

"Woodward asks us to take his word--to trust him--in recounting more than four dozen interviews with Casey in which Casey spilled his most sensitive secrets. Can his account of what Casey said be checked with Casey? No way. Casey died in May."

Perhaps there is some similarity between Woodward's Casey and Godchaux's Frisbie, though Frisbie was nothing more than an in-joke, a mild protest against the kind of overkill coverage Los Angeles newspapers then gave the Tournament of Roses. Phlange Welder, I suspect, was a protest against that day's veneration of the upper classes in the society columns. Irene Sharkey, who then worked on the society desk, remembers that Welder was ubiquitous: "He was present at the most prestigious social and philanthropic events; he was with friends in the clubhouse on opening days at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita; he often hosted picnics in a box at the Hollywood Bowl. . . ."

She confirms that Phlange Welder was lifted from the Men Wanted columns by reporter Ted Sell, who gave him life as a socialite.

"But those of us who have devoted our lives to newspapering should think it over," Kilpatrick concludes. "When the rain falls upon Buzzard Flats, it falls upon us all."

I have been in "the craft" as long as Kilpatrick, and I suspect I take as much pride in it as he does. I agree with him that no reporter should tamper with the truth. Except for Smith Flats, my one fall from grace, I don't believe that I ever have. Any newspaper's ultimate asset is its credibility.

I have no idea whether Woodward's book is reliable, but if indeed it is not, as Kilpatrick suggests, it may have a seriously pernicious effect on the public apprehension of recent history.

I doubt that the public was harmed in the least by Victor Frisbie and Phlange Welder. But those two phantoms lived in the 1950s--the last gasp of the era of wonderful nonsense, when the world was ours. No respectable newspaper today would or should tolerate them, or Smith Flats either.

But invention sometimes turns out to be true, I quote this note from Dr. B. L. Crosby, of Los Osos:

"I thought it might interest you to know that Smith Flats, Calif., is about two miles east of Placerville, on U.S. 50. (Map enclosed.)"

Robert W. Bathke sends a copy of a news item that appeared in the Examiner of Jan. 6, 1962, the day of its demise, at 58.

BAKERSFIELD--Victor Frisbie, well-known sportsman and traveler, died here Friday. He was 58.

I also have a note from Ted Sell: "You have it all wrong. It was I who invented Ted Sell, not the other way around--Phlange Welder."

How do I know that note is from Ted Sell? I just know.

Trust me.

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