Updated: Apr 16, 2021
By Fred A. Reed
One of an occasional series of Scenes from a Southern California Boyhood.
Several of the contributors to this blog are (or were) sports reporters and/or editors, whom I hold in the highest regard; barflies who throng the watering holes of the journalistic world trading stories and tall tales. But in terms of seniority, I doubt whether they’ve got all that much on me.
For although my sports writing career was short and less than illustrious—like just about everything else I’ve done before or since—it was precociously far ahead of its time.
In fact, putting aside the movers and shakers like William Randolph Hearst or the Chandler family that owned the Los Angeles Times, the paper of record in my home town, I assert that I was the true though unacknowledged pioneer of what later came to be known as ‘fake news.’
I would have been seventeen, a high-school senior afflicted with acute sports inability. My specialties were draughtsmanship, where thanks to a knack for drawing I was able to complete my assignments rapidly and use the extra time to make complex renderings of airplanes, down to the rivets. This was the industrial drafting class presided over by a gruff, hyper-masculine instructor who kept us entertained with stories of the master baiters who worked on the Southern California tuna fishing fleet.
I likewise fiddled with photography using my father’s antique bellows camera and began to experiment with film, along with my inseparable friend Dennis Jakob, whose career peaked as an advisor to Coppola on his dystopian masterwork Apocalypse Now.
But I was proudest of my gig at the high school sports desk at the Pasadena Star News, our proud city’s evening newspaper. That was where the action was; the thrill of breaking news; the frisson of inventing and of not getting caught.
So of a Friday afternoon, instead of fooling around with girls as was my classmates’ wont, I would hurry to the Star News building on downtown Colorado Street and take a seat, with a feeling of power, behind my desk. Poised in front of me were a telephone, a typewriter and sheaves of paper. Like an all-seeing, all-knowing spider I perched at the apex of a web of region-wide correspondents who would soon be phoning in results of the afternoon’s football, basketball and baseball games, depending on the season.
But what provided me with the most fertile field of endeavour was the track season. Here the possibilities for creative fantasy seemed limitless. I can confess now that little held my raging imagination in check.
Correspondents would call in, breathless, from far away sub-suburbs and exurbs; places where there was more tumbleweed than strip malls, former orange groves uprooted to accommodate the influx of the impoverished to the Southern California Eldorado. Or so they thought.
Ear glued to the receiver I would type down the report, noting first, second and third places, times or distances, and of course the final score. “You got that?” would come the breathless inquiry.
You bet I did.
For, wagering inwardly that my correspondents would only be looking at the lists of their winners, I presumed they wouldn’t notice that I had invented an entire ‘B’ team. Or that the members of the defeated relay teams—of which I contrived several—were in fact made up of the names of fellow students from Pasadena High School. Lads like me, bereft of any athletic ability; slow, clumsy and gawky.
Which is not to disparage their academic qualities or their future prospects. Several went on to careers of high scientific achievement; others in the legal profession; still more in the business world, which was regarded with some respect back then.
But my fake news vocation, brief as it was, gave me the all the skills I needed to practice the noble art of translation, at which many years later I enjoyed a modest success. For what is translation but a higher form of deception masquerading as art? Is not Hermes, the god of trickery and deceit, the patron of translators? Something need not be “true”, after all, but must appear to be so.
But I digress. My brief career as a practitioner of fake news inured me to surprise when, later in life I encountered journalists—the real deal, the big shots with their retinues of hangers-on, cameramen and producers—whose motto was the very one I’d perfected on my own way back then. When in doubt, make it up.