Fake News Rode in On a Cow

By Nicholas Steed

This is an except from the new book, Fish Wrapped: True Confessions of Newsrooms Past, created and edited by David Sherman, a collection of writings on the joys and sorrows of lives in the newspaper business. Published by Guernica Editions. By Permission.

Fake news? We didn’t have to invent it. It just came naturally.

Barely out of my teens I am two weeks into my first job as a reporter on the Woodstock Sentinel Review, a daily broadsheet covering rural Southwest Ontario. Total journalism training so far: a quick read of a book on how to become a reporter. The secret to finding scoops, it says, is keen observation of your surroundings. As the book suggests, I look around. Sure enough I spot large numbers of black and white Holstein Friesian cows dotted around the Oxford County countryside. Hard to miss them, actually. The idea comes to me in a flash. Why not start a feature called Cow of the Week – a picture of a champion cow and an interview with the farmer?

The city editor loves the idea. Soon I am crashing gears in the company Volkswagen as I race out for the first cow job. With me is the staff photographer who en route confesses to me he only got the job at the Sentinel after failing the exam to become a mailman. No matter, he gets the cow photo. But the farmer proves monosyllabic. So I make up his quotes for him and he grunts assent.

Next week we repeat the process with a similar result – picture of cow standing in mud and grunts from farmer. A week later I thought: To hell with all this stomping through the mud. Why not just phone a farmer, get the grunts and then flip last week’s cow picture so it faced the other way and make up the quotes as usual? One Holstein Friesian looked much the same as the next one. So this is what we did for succeeding weeks. We had the looking-right Holstein and the looking-left Holstein. Not a grunt of complaint came from any of the farmers. And my secret was safe with the photographer.

Thus I took the first of many steps down the proverbial slippery path of journalism. The Sentinel was a small-town parody of a stereotypical Hollywood newspaper. A beer-bellied city editor lorded it over a newsroom not much bigger than a two-car garage. Flanked by a weedy minion busily ripping copy off clattering wire machines, he barked orders as spit dribbled from his pipe.

The ad salesmen and reporters were either old hacks on their way down or youngsters like myself hoping to be on the way up. One salesman had the distressing habit of getting drunk and running naked around the city park scaring the children. He always reported for work the next day as if nothing had happened. We were paid a pittance by the stingy Thomson organization.

But no matter, it was a foot on the ladder to greater things and larger deceptions.

Four years of journalism school? Why bother? Here I was a mere kid and local big shots were actually slathering to be my friend when I called on them for the news: the mayor, the chief of the four-man police department, even the chairman of the golf club – I mean, how much more important could a youngster like myself get?

But, alas, dishonesty didn’t stop with Cow of the Week. Still worse was to come. In fact, outright corruption. A couple of French-Canadian businessmen turned up in Woodstock with a machine tool they wanted to sell to a local factory. They told me their story then thrust two crisp $20 notes into my hand – equivalent to my weekly salary. Before I could protest they were out the door and away. Shamefully, I pocketed the notes and told nobody. No doubt, I told myself, this was the way business was done in Quebec. Did I write their story? My memory fails me.

Other forms of back-sliding were more subtle. One of my tasks was theatre critic. This involved reviewing the local amateur dramatic society’s dire productions. On the first night I tactfully wrote that so-and-so was good in this role, so-and-so not quite so good in that role. “No! No!” shouted the city editor. “That’s not the way you do it. What you do is you start off by saying ‘The Woodstock Amateur Dramatic Society gave an interesting and informative performance of …’ And then you say everyone was outstanding.”

Postscript: I’d assumed the Woodstock Sentinel Review had folded along with so many other small-town newspapers. But, at this writing, no – Google shows it alive and well in both print and digital formats. I dare to think that in my own small way, all those years ago, I contributed to its survival today.

To order copies of Fish Wrapped: True Confessions of Newsrooms Past, contact:

Davidlsherman@icloud.com or www.guernicaeditions.com

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