By Paul Wieland
Fake news…fake news…
How about “real” fake news.
The nirvana of hoaxers…my nirvana…
After a decade as a reporter on two Buffalo newspapers, I went over to the dark side, selling my journalistic soul to General Motors, or as I called it: “The Mother of All Motors.” I spent two years speechifying for GM executives who had the cultural literacy of wart hogs. They were getting paid by the best executive bonus system in the auto industry, and soon, so was I. But, I hated the auto company’s culture.
So before I was caught in the money trap of a high-paid career as a flack , (remember, I had been a newspaperman) I broad-jumped cultures to professional hockey. I would run the public relations efforts of the Buffalo Sabres from the beginning and for the next quarter century. Along the way, I morphed into a provider of fake news on April 1. Later on, occasionally I faked just to stay sharp. I was the Elaine Benes of sports hoaxers.
My April Fools hoaxes proved that at least some reporters, editors and news directors didn’t read the releases they were sent, or didn’t read beyond the first few paragraphs. Despite the way I exposed each hoax in my releases, I can solemnly swear that over a decade the essence of some of my fictions appeared as fact in the New York Times, Canadian newspapers and on radio and TV sports broadcasts across the continent.
Most of my former comrades in the news business caught the gags, and some wrote about them, sharing my humor with their readers, listeners or viewers. In the mid 1970’s the AP carried a Sunday feature about the Sabres as “the team that has fun.” I was thrilled and edified that my somewhat off-kilter approach to PR was effective.
It was difficult not to be off kilter in the world of sports, particularly ice hockey, where grown men wearing short pants and colorful tops knock around a piece of black galvanized rubber for a living. As a hockey player myself, I shared their culture, even learning the official language of the sport, a dialect appropriated from a Marine Corps drill sergeant. I know a big league hockey coach who I never heard use a sentence in private conversation that doesn’t include the magic four-letter word. But I digress.
My first hoax was a spur-of-the-moment one-off. On the day of the annual amateur draft of young prospects, I was bored with the slow pace and convinced Buffalo’s general manager, the late George “Punch’ imlach, that we could spice it up. Thus, it came to be that we drafted an imaginary hockey player from Japan, one Taro Tsujimoto, who had played with the Tokyo Katanas as a junior. I attached suitable playing stats and well as size and weight to Taro, who would be the first Japanese player to attempt a career in the NHL.
His draft succeeded, and the denizens of hockey around the NHL were perplexed. Their scouts hadn’t ever heard of Taro. How did Buffalo know about him? It was easy, as I had made him up.
When it was apparent that the league accepted the official draft of a member of the Tokyo Katanas (translation:” Sabres”) I put him out there for the media to behold. Punch and I vowed to keep him a trade secret, not even telling the team owners. Taro entered the NHL Media Guide and the Sabres media guide. His equipment hung that fall at training camp at awaiting his arrival, while Sabres players wondered if he would ever show, or—more importantly—could be a danger to their job.
Taro was the most famous of my hoaxes, I suppose. But, as they all were, Taro was a transparent hoax. Any reporter worth his or her salt should have checked it and they would have found there’s no such player or team. This was in pre-Google time, so it would have been a bit difficult, but hardly a real challenge.
During the next few years I succeeded on April 1 with other hoaxes. My favorites included announcing the floor of Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo, the piped surface where ice was made for games, would be torn up and replaced by a polymer (plastic) surface called “Sliderex.” The ice-making pipes were really torn up in the auditorium that spring. This one not only fooled three media outlets, it caught Clarence Campbell, president of the NHL, way off-guard. The late Campbell told the Canadian Press that Buffalo’s new plastic ice showed the league was in the forefront of sports technology.
One page two of the news release I pointed out Sliderex was invented by a former (and disceased) prime minister of Great Britain, Ramsay MacDonald in a Pictou County, Nova Scotia cow barn. Despite waving the hoax flag, more than a dozen outlets bought the plastic ice.
There were more over the years, dozens more, in print and on our TV game broadcasts. I painted with a broader brush than before, making the hoaxes as transparent as I could make them. Still each year a joke would catch an unsuspecting (or catatonic) reporter.
I find it frightening that my silliness was treated seriously by too many members of the media. I never thought of myself as a purveyor of “fake news,” just fun. Today, I wonder if I should have ever been a fake news provider. It’s chilling to be called “an enemy of the people.”
Yet I couldn’t resist writing a book about it all called, “Taro Lives!” The book isn’t at all fake, unless you count the back cover photo of the author, uncannily resembling James Dean.
Paul Wieland, a longtime journalist who teaches in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University, worked for the Buffalo Sabres for nearly 25 years as public relations director and later communications director.