The latest edition of SF Weekly, which I picked up this morning at a coffee shop, features a cover article that purports to detail revelatory new claims by a man who served prison time with Barry Bonds' erstwhile trainer/drug pusher, Greg Anderson. "Steroid Confidential" promises to reveal new facts about Bonds, spilled behind bars by Anderson, who has steadfastly refused to give any evidence to the grand jury investigating steroids claims.
The tribulations of Bonds and BALCO have always been one of those stories that fail to hold my attention, so it took me a while to flip back to the article. After I began to read, I felt a creeping unease. Something in the writing wasn't kosher. It started with the overwrought, over-dramatic phrasing in the introduction: "Prison changes a man. Makes him hard and cold, 'like the frozen earth itself,' as Hemingway once observed. Only returning to the outside has allowed Marlon Leftwich to thaw his spirit, to warm his soul." Then there's the continual interruption of the article's affected seriousness by what appear to be unfortunately humorous details: a junk-food addict taken down by a pimpled FBI agent, Bonds drinking a homemade concoction that included elk semen.
Aside from stylistic issues, there are glaring journalistic flaws. The article relies on one source, Marlon Leftwich, a barely employed ex-con who says, among other things, he overheard Anderson talking in his sleep. The reporters blatantly state they failed to contact Bonds or Anderson for comment. There is one photo on the second page of the article showing a man whose face is obscured by shadow, whom we must infer is Marlon Leftwich. The staging seems out of place, as does the lack of clear attribution.
By the end, after a series of increasingly ridiculous quotes climaxes with someone claiming Bonds actually drives 100 miles every month to masturbate male elk, half of me felt partially that SF Weekly would print such awful journalism and half knew the article had to be fake.
Which it was.
Josh Wolf, a CNET.com blogger who served time in the same prison as Anderson for refusing to give videotape to a grand jury, has performed the best post-mortem on the piece. He contacted SF Weekly, who affirmed the story was entirely made up. The names of the two reporters, Nic Foit and Ira Tes, are anagrams for "fiction" and "satire." Wolf also points out the article's biggest flaw: There is absolutely no indicator the story is fake or meant to be humorous.
I've got no problem with satire, from Swift to The Onion. In fact, I love it. But as a j-school graduate, I do have a problem when a widely read alt-weekly not only writes a fake story but makes it the headlining, front-page piece. A rumor has been circulating that a Chicago radio station read portions of the article on the air assuming they were true. The article is clearly ridiculous, it should be obvious to most readers that something is amiss, so it would be irresponsible for any media personality to simply repeat the story verbatim. Yet even if every reader knew it was fake, what must this make the average person think about SF Weekly, and journalism as a whole?
I can't imagine, given the news media's damaged reputation, that articles like this do any good. Some might applaud (or laugh with) SF Weekly for doing something daring, but satire is not the provenance of such a paper. At the very least this story does not belong in such a prominent position unaccompanied by any disclaimer or indication of humorous intent. Stamping the word "Satire" in caps lock above the headline would, of course, ruin most of the article's fun. But that's not something SF Weekly should be worrying about. Perhaps they might concentrate on news and commentary about the events of real life. It's sad that SF Weekly would waste time, talent and money like this.