My Sordid Role in the Birth of Fake News

It was the mid-1960s, and Americans had begun to doubt the truth of the news that was spoon-fed to them by compliant media outlets.  “Body count” became the measure of success in the Vietnam War, but because a higher number of KIAs (for “killed in action”) meant promotions for officers, there was pressure to inflate their reports of the enemy dead.  A staggering 61% of American commanders considered body counts to be grossly exaggerated.  Not their own, of course, just the other guys’.

A newfound cynicism washed over the nation’s thinking, and it began to seep down even–perhaps especially–to America’s youth.  If ABC, NBC and CBS could lie to us about what was happening halfway around the world, we thought, why can’t we lie about what’s happening right here at home?

In this atmosphere a campaign of fake news was born that continued for several years, as a group of waggish boys (plus a few girls) gulled our local newspaper into reporting on the existence of a fictitious charitable organization–The Poor Fern Society–that celebrated a made-up holiday, Poor Fern’s Day, complete with a parade, the crowning of a Poor Fern’s Queen, and an awards ceremony that recognized members of the group who had served with distinction during the immediately preceding twelve-month period.


Parade in Sedalia, Mo., State Fair City, Queen City of the Prairies, Gateway to the Ozarks.

 

I am both relieved–and a bit disappointed–to find as I read old news clippings from the Sedalia (Mo.) Democrat-Capital that I am not identified as a ringleader of the organization, although I was singled out as a member of a “committee working on arrangements for . . . festivities” in 1969.  Memory plays tricks on the mind nearly a half century later; I thought by 1969 I was done with Poor Fern’s Day.  Like so many holidays, over time it had become too commercialized, and we had lost sight of our original purpose, which was, in the words of our chairman, to “have fun by helping others to have fun.”  I don’t know that we ever actually voted on that guiding principle, but you know how it is with non-profits; after a while, everybody abandons the hard work of drafting a Mission Statement because you’ve figured out what it is you need to do, and you just go do it.


Bare ruined drive-in, where late the juvenile delinquents hung out.

 

I don’t mean to suggest that our cock-and-bull society was all fun and games–no sir.  In addition to keeping ourselves amused and avoiding the near occasions of sin such as drive-in hamburger joints that led to juvenile delinquency, we claimed to do volunteer work, sponsor a Little League team, and visit the sick and shut-ins so beloved by evangelical preachers who spread the word of God–and collected donations from those who could ill afford it–by our two (2) local radio stations.

We claimed to be 80 strong, a gross but excusable exaggeration.  Would a newspaper send a reporter to cover your event if it was known that the actual number of your non-dues-paying members was probably less than twenty?  Oh sure, that count swelled on the day of the annual parade because we pooled our money and bought soft drinks and ice cream to keep us cool in the summer heat, but if Joseph McCarthy or some other red-baiting legislator had hauled us before a latter-day House Un-American Activities Committee, the great majority of our fair-weather friends could have truthfully said they were not then, nor had they ever been, members of The Poor Fern Society.


“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of The Poor Fern Society?”

While we violated the Old Testament injunction against telling a lie, we apparently took care to follow the rules governing our conduct, as opposed to mere speech.  We had a police escort for our parade, with a formal line of march through the downtown shopping district–where my father’s women’s clothing store was located!  It was thus an adventure fraught with risk for me, since my mother’s rule was “Fools’ names and fools’ faces are always seen in public places.”


South Ohio Street, Chapman’s Ladies Ready-to-Wear at left.

 

We claimed to be the third-most active chapter of The Poor Fern Society in America, after The Bronx, New York, and McKeesport, Pennsylvania.  In retrospect, I think The Bronx chapter had an unfair advantage, as we located the Poor Fern Hall of Fame in New York City.  I suspect there may have been some ballot-box stuffing involved in their #1 ranking, but then I now live in Boston, where Mayor James Michael Curley used to urge his supporters to vote “early and often.” As a result, I am inclined by hard usage to skepticism in matters of politics.


W.C. Fields

 

Like all good spoofers, we included a key to unlock the door to understanding our fictional tale.  We elected as our national president Curtis T. Bascom, which–as every schoolboy knows–was a pseudonym used by comic actor W.C. Fields to open secret bank accounts where he hid his money from creditors when he worked on the vaudeville circuit as a juggler.  If schoolboys don’t know that these days, then what the hell are they teaching them in school–algebra?  Give me a break!

Thus, all it would have taken to unmask our fraud would have been a five-minute search for “W.C. Fields AND pseudonyms” on the forerunner to the internet:

The network of pneumatic tubes in the most modern department store downtown.

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