This week, we printed a small story about a local couple who had become engaged. We included some details. In making his proposal before an assemblage of friends and family, the future groom had dropped to his knees, we reported. He told his hoped-for bride that he had wasted many years without her, and there "wasn't a dry eye in the house."
All well and good, if a bit sappy.
Except that it was not true.
It was the work of prankster, and it underlines our need to be careful about people whose need for attention exceeds their good judgment.
Early in my career, I was warned by some of my gray-beard editors about faked obituaries. It is not uncommon, they said, for readers to try to slip in the death of a perfectly alive friend or relative for what they hope will be a crackin' good slap on the knee.
A number of years ago, as an editor in Stockton, I helped stop a prank from making the paper. We had received a press release from a Bay Area group announcing that they were coming to Stockton to set a new world record. The goal escapes me, but it was something entirely trivial, like "most hours spent eating raspberry ice cream in a crosswalk." The press release said the troupe had set earlier records for other, equally ludicrous, accomplishments.
We sent one of our best feature writers to cover the whimsical attempt. He came back with a frothy and fun story. But things didn't quite add up. I asked him if he'd been able to find any of the merry crew's previous exploits in official record books. He had not. We looked again, together, at the press release. We checked the phone number. It was disconnected. We tried to check the Bay Area address listed. We couldn't find it.
I had that sad, sinking feeling.
We spiked the piece. Later, we found that the group had indeed tried to sucker us into publishing a bogus story.
This week we were not so lucky.
I heard about the problem Tuesday morning from Jennifer Snyder, our wonderfully diligent Panorama editor. Jennifer coordinates the publication of our engagement and wedding news. She came into my office, obviously upset, and said we'd published a false engagement announcement. She'd been contacted by the purported bride-to-be, an Acampo woman, who said her brother had pulled the prank.
I called the woman and offered our apologies. (I'm not naming her because she has suffered enough embarrassment.)
It turns out she has been married to her husband for more than 39 years. The bogus engagement story was placed by her brother, of all people, who actually warned her he was going to do it as some weird kind of joke.
I asked her how she felt about it.
"It's not funny. We are private people. I wish my brother would stop doing this. He has a pattern of pulling pranks. I wish you would sue him." (A lawsuit would be an expensive and iffy proposition in this case.)
I asked her, if her brother had bragged about it beforehand, why she hadn't stopped it.
"I just didn't believe he'd follow through with it," she said.
Her brother, she told me, is in his late 50s. When I had initially heard about the prank from Jennifer, I assumed it had been someone relatively young and dumb. So much for young.
I placed a call to her brother, asking him to call back and discuss his contribution. This was 10:30 am. Tuesday. As of Friday at 5 p.m., I had not heard from him.
Readers may wonder if we verify all engagement or wedding news submitted to us. Frankly, there has been no need to use our precious journalistic resources for this. We've trusted our readers to submit truthful information and they have.
If I sound perplexed by this episode, I am.
I just can't relate to someone old enough to know better embarrassing his sister and brother-in-law, bruising a newspaper's credibility, taking up valuable news space under false pretenses, and upsetting a young and very conscientious editor.
In my book, that's not funny. It's a little pathetic.
Richard Hanner is the Lodi News-Sentinel's editor. He can be contacted at (209) 369-7035 or by e-mail at email@example.com.