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Friday, April 22, 2016

My Journalism 9/11

One of my scariest moments in journalism occurred on April 14, 2001 when I was the victim of a news tip that turned my life upside down. It was my journalistic Ides of March.  
      The tip came from a man I had known for several years. A resident of Center City, Steve’s hobby was to befriend as many Philly writers as possible. Steve and I became so friendly that he felt comfortable asking me if I would escort him home from the hospital after his various surgical procedures. An older man, Steve said he was a Hollywood screenwriter who adopted The Wonder Boys to film. He also mentioned another project, a Harry Potter film. The fact that he chose to live in Philly and not New York did not surprise me because there are creative types who like the relative quiet and comfort of smaller cities.
   . When I’d visit Steve he’d show me his film scripts and talk about the Hollywood stars he knew, such as Olivia Newton John, who gave him a big brown teddy bear that had a central place in his apartment. On one of my visits I hugged the bear and sang a few bars of, Hopelessly Devoted to You.

   Whenever Steve read a published article of mine, he’d ring me up and talk about it. This went on for several years. Then one day he called and said he had a story for me. “Are you sitting down?” he asked. He seemed a little shaken when he told me that the media had ignored the story that he was about to tell. “I’ve decided to tell it to you,” he confessed, “because your stuff reaches a wide audience.”
   The story involved the murder of a man in Washington Square.

   After Steve fleshed out the details of the story, I contacted my editor and related what I had heard. My editor agreed that an Op-Ed was in order, and so I wrote a piece that came to be titled, Painful silence makes the slaying of a gay man a double tragedy. The piece was published on Saturday, April 14, 2001, but by the following Monday all hell would break loose.
   Here’s what readers of The Inquirer read that day:
       About three weeks ago in Washington Square, just before 8 a.m., two men approached a couple walking in the park. Within view were people scurrying to
Work…What happened next would change many lives. One of the men pulled out a knife and demanded that the couple empty their pockets. The couple did as they were told; no doubt expecting the men would disappear once they got what they wanted.   
   But one of the robbers plunged the knife into one of the robbed. The victim fell, and the two criminals ran. When police and ambulance arrived, the injured party was taken to a nearby hospital where he fell into a coma. While this was happening, the victim’s friend went with police to search for the assailants.
   They caught one of them, but the man responsible for the knifing—by the following morning the charge would be murder—remains at large.

   What made the story a “double tragedy” was the fact that the victim had been so private about his life that his family, after flying out from the Midwest, was hard pressed to find out anything about their son.
 “The one of two friends remained tight lipped when the family wanted to know why their son didn’t know more people. The family had no choice but to take the body home for a private funeral.” The son of course knew many people, but because they were all gay, nobody was talking.
    After the piece was published I called Steve to see if he had read the Op Ed, but he seemed to have vanished.     
    Over the weekend various people called me to say how horrified they were that a murder of that magnitude had gone under the radar. In my mind, I was still “thanking” Steve for choosing me to be the one to break the story.
   The following Monday morning, as coffee brewed in my kitchen, my editor at The Inquirer called, his voice shaky as he announced that he had some bad news. He related how the Philadelphia Police had contacted the paper and reported that no murders had been committed in Washington Square area at that time, and that my Op Ed had some city detectives sweating bullets thinking that they had missed a major crime. Neither The Inquirer or your truly had called police to confirm that a murder had been committed before writing and/or running the story.
   The realization that my friend Steve had played a trick on me was devastating.   
     When my editor informed me that the newspaper had printed a retraction in the Monday edition, I ran around to the local 7/11 to get a copy. My heart sank when I saw the boxed headline on the editorial page:
                                             Murder report was a hoax
“…Reports of the crime were fabricated by a source on whom the writer relied in writing the commentary….The writer himself believed the report of the crime to be true, based on several interviews with a source who provided extensive details. …”
    I went home and headed straight for the telephone. Steve answered this time. My mood was up there with road rage drivers. .
    “There was no murder, Steve, the whole thing was a hoax,” I said as soon as he answered. “Why did you do this, Steve?”
   He kept calling me Tommy and seemed to regard the incident as humorous. “Why Tommy,” he added, “Why don’t you just tell your editor that you made the whole thing up?” I swallowed hard and reminded him of all the times I’d taken him home from the hospital, carrying his overnight bag and sitting with him in taxis then escorting him into his apartment.  Finally he told me that the story was from a new screenplay he was writing and that he just wanted to see if I would be convinced of its authenticity. “I thought I told you it was from a screen play,” he said, adding insult to injury.   
   After that conversation I never spoke to Steve again. And in the news story melee that followed, Steve would refuse to comment when reporters like Daniel Brook of City Paper and Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post called for comments. Steve literally vanished after that.       
         In the meantime, my Daily News editor called and left a message saying that he supported me and that what happened would not—not—affect my work with the DN.  I felt some relief hearing this even though he would come to break his promise. In a day or two I would need this editor’s feedback when Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz called me requesting an interview.   
     I wanted the DN’s editor’s opinion about how to deal with Kurtz, since a writer friend of mine cautioned me that Kurtz “could be a barracuda and make you look really bad in print.” The DN editor was not returning my calls, however, though I tried for a couple days before the dreaded Kurtz interview. When it became obvious that the DN editor had vanished, I went ahead with the interview. When the piece appeared in The Post, the DN editor magically surfaced but only to criticize me for me for what I had said to Kurtz. “You should have assumed full responsibility for what happened,” he said. “You never said those words,” Years later I would see this phrase over and over again repeated by seasoned politicians and others who had been caught in some kind of scandal.

                   I assume full responsibility. I assume full responsibility.

       Life was getting worse: not only had I perpetuated a hoax, but now I was seen by some as an arrogant son of a bitch who didn’t seem sorry enough.
   But I truly was sorry, and I thought I made that clear to Kurtz but somehow that sentiment never came through in his reporting.      
   Some months later, I was interviewed by Daniel Brook of City Paper.    

“These days, Thom Nickels is a busy man,” Brook wrote. “With the recent release of his new book,Manayunk (Arcadia Publishing), Nickels has been making the rounds on the local TV interview circuit. Thus far, he’s appeared on WCAU and KYW.

 “According to Nickels and another source who declined to be named, “Steve” claims to have written major Hollywood screenplays like Wonder Boys under the pen name Steve Kloves. Indeed, Steve Kloves is the big-name Oscar-nominated screenwriter who adapted Wonder Boys to film. His latest project, a movie version of Harry Potter, is due out this Thanksgiving. But according to two sources City Paper contacted, one at Warner Bros., which is producing the Harry Potter movie, and another at Creative Artists Agency, which represents Kloves, Steve Kloves isn’t a pen name. He’s a real person, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and kids…”

   Steve, meanwhile, had always told me that his wife had died in a plane crash.
    To this day I cannot hear an Olivia Newton John song without being reminded of how I was duped by a man who had a teddy bear in his living room.