Wick Communications

Check it out

In journalism, Uncategorized on 13 Jan 2012 at 9:27 am

Do you ever hear someone say something that is just too amazing to possibly be true? Are you ever tempted to include it in a news story because … well, because it is just so darn amazing?

I am often tempted like that. If someone tells you he foiled a bank robbery at work today, that is probably the first thing you are going to tell your spouse when you get home, right? Something that amazing can be particularly seductive if it is repeated over and over again. How could something that is said repeatedly not be true?

Let me give you an example and, with it, suggest you check these things out. Doing so can turn your amazing story into a real news-breaker. Have you ever heard the one about how Michael Jordan – by acclimation the greatest basketball player who ever walked the planet – was cut from his high school basketball team? It’s part of every profile that has ever been written about him. It’s part of the mystique of a guy who was driven to overcome those who doubted him, etc., etc.

Well, Thomas Lake of Sports Illustrated bothered to find out if it was true. Turns out it is a little white lie Jordan has been telling (and telling and telling) as part of his personal narrative. From Lake’s story:

… Over the next three decades Jordan would become a world-class collector of emotional wounds, a champion grudge-holder, a magician at converting real and imagined insults into the rocket fuel that made him fly. If he had truly been cut that year, as he would claim again and again, he wouldn’t have had such an immediate chance for revenge. But in fact his name was on the second list, the jayvee roster, with the names of many of his fellow sophomores. Jordan quickly became a jayvee superstar. …Repeating the chosen narrative someone gives you is the easy thing to do. In fact, questioning someone’s past can feel downright icky. It can even feel like you are calling him a liar. But that is the job here.

Of course, after a while, a good reporter develops a BS detector. You just sort of sense that something is worth checking out.

Another example: There is a lawyer here in Half Moon Bay who  is involved in a civil suit with his former girlfriend. The long complaint reads more like the diary entry of a scorned lover than a something a real lawyer would produce. (What you see at the top of this post is a portion of his complaint, believe it or not.) Well, he claims to have gone to Yale and to have a legal degree from Harvard. That may well be true, but you can bet we will check it out before we print anything about him.

Another example: I listened to a very heart-felt opinion piece on the radio from this guy. He claimed to be an Iraq war veteran, saying that he returned only to find more violence in the streets during Occupy protests. He claims he was wrongly arrested. That being a soldier taught him to drink. He also says he was once a promising pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization. Well, that is something that can be checked. So I did.

Thursday, a Chicago Cubs media guy told me that the name Leo Webb didn’t “pop up on any of our electronic databases.” To be fair, that isn’t the final word. He promised to check paper files and get back to me with the definitive word. I fully suspect Webb is telling the truth. In fact, by checking, I have an opportunity to lend credence to the rest of his story. Or call into question everything else he says in his piece.

Stay tuned. I’ll update this post when I hear for sure.


  1. Just heard the same guy, Leo Webb, on KCRW’s Marketplace. (Same piece, looks like.) Having been trained in science and journalism, I too have a ‘check the facts’ instinct, which led me to your post, Clay. I hope you’ll let us know what you found out!


  2. Thanks, CJ.

    The latest word from the Cubs remains inconclusive. Last week a Cubs representative said he couldn’t lay hands on the paper records of minor leaguers from 10 and 20 years ago because the team is moving into new offices.

    He said to call him back in March and that’s what I’m gonna do. Thanks for reading.

    Oh, again: I want to reiterate that I have no reason to doubt Mr. Webb. I’m just making a point about the need to check things out.

  3. I trust by now you’ve read that it was all a hoax. He’s never been in the service; never played for the Cubs. Marketplace was duped.

  4. So I have heard… Lots of back and forth about that on the journalism websites. It wouldn’t be the first time and it won’t be the last.

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