Hmmm, this Phoenix firebird speaks with forked tongue at least when it comes to the New Times story on white-trash diva Anna Nicole Smith's Native American love child, "Tohono O'odham with Love" (March 8, 2007). Lest you've been on a spelunking expedition for the past two weeks, you'll know that this parody of the media spectacle surrounding the tabloid queen's demise has been spewed far and wide, suckering in the very media entities that the Onion-esque tale was satirizing: Star, People, US Weekly, Globe, Court TV, Access Hollywood, Inside Edition. Even CBS News. They all found the loony lampoon too tempting to ignore, despite "tells" littered throughout the freaky farce.
As most now know, this starry-eyed starling's doppelganger made up the crux of the story, though certain details of Anna Nicole's bizarre bio included in the parody were true. There's no Indian Casanova named Johnny Soto, no half-O'odham heir named Marshall Soto. The brother-in-law of a New Times staff member played Johnny in the pix. Little Marshall is the son of pals of a staffer. A half-assed birth certificate was cranked out, revealing that the tyke was born in secret at Burbank, California's Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center. Pics of players in the actual Anna Nicole saga, such as Howard K. Stern, Larry Birkhead, and Zsa Zsa Gabor's hubby Prince Frederic von Anhalt, added to the narrative's believability, as did details like genuine O'odham words and customs.
Anna Nicole's train-wreck existence, her contentious post-mortem, the extent of her drug abuse, and her gargantuan sexual appetite kept the fabrication within the realm of the possible. But the "tells" were big enough to pilot space shuttles through. First off, there were no photos of Anna Nicole, Johnny and Marshall together, though don't think we didn't consider crafting some via Photoshop. The birth certificate was only partially reproduced, and it didn't have the requisite border and seals. Then there's the ridiculousness that a tabloid star of Anna Nicole's popularity could have hidden her pregnancy and given birth in total secrecy so close to La-La Land.
Anna Nicole Smith
Lastly, there's the byline "Charles Tatum." This was Tatum's first story ever for the Phoenix paper, supposedly. Some break for the new journo on staff, eh? However, a few movie buffs recognized the name as the same as that of Kirk Douglas' character in the 1951 Billy Wilder flick, Ace in the Hole. In it, Tatum's a cynical, corrupt big-city reporter who falls from grace and ends up chasing stories for a rag in New Mexico, hoping for a big break that will propel him back to the top. As Tatum tells his Albuquerque editor, "I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog." So he ends up manufacturing a media circus out of some poor schlub stuck in a mine shaft.
After the Anna Nicole cover story ran, all calls to Charles Tatum were routed to this devious dodo's alter ego, who affected a deep Southern twang, calling himself "Charlie," for short. Since folks were asking to get in touch with Johnny Soto, we set up a New Times extension to act as Soto's voice mail. People magazine was the first to phone Tatum and then call Soto. The Boca Raton-based supermarket tabloid Globe was hugely interested in the story and asked to get in touch with the photographers to buy pics. On Globe's behalf, correspondent/photographer Eric Munn rushed to Sells, where he spent a day and night desperately phoning both Soto and Tatum. "We're in Sells right now, Johnny," Munn said in his first recorded message to Soto. "Just down by the convenience store, actually."
This rascally roadrunner hopes Munn enjoyed his stay in the capital of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Sure, this tweeter feels a little guilty about sending the sap on a snipe hunt, but then, how was it to know that supermarket tabloids even had reporters!? This seed-swallower figured they made all that crazy shit up! Ah, despair not, Eric, according to this peacock's source on the rez, at least half a dozen of your colleagues in the fourth estate also made the trek to Sells. Indeed, on the Thursday the spoof first saw the light of day, our rez contact says they fielded more than 100 calls from eager members of the press!
Even more persistent than the Globe was the gossip site Splashnews.com, which offered our freelance photographer Giulio Sciorio a syndication deal worth up to $500,000 for pics of the boy. Ultimately, Splash, with offices in London and L.A., was told that New Times owned the rights, but that it could have the photos free of charge. They must've figured Tatum and his Zona colleagues as real shit-kickers to relinquish such digital gold for nada.
Splashnews.com, whose representatives all seemed to have British or Australian accents, offered Sciorio $400 to drive them to the general vicinity of where Soto's shack-like house purportedly sat, just outside of Sells. Also, Splash news editor Paul Tetley told Tatum, "We could put money right into your bank account, Charlie," if Tatum would help Splash locate Soto. Um, not that we weren't tempted, Sir Paul, but we weren't feeling like giving a tour of the Sonoran desert that day.
Meanwhile, many regular New Times readers had figured us out and were weighing in on the comments section of our Web site. Though there were still numerous people calling for DNA testing of the little boy, and denouncing Johnny Soto as a money-grubbing scoundrel, more and more were spotting the giveaways in the story, calling it a hoax, or just enjoying it as a ribald satire of current events.
"Maybe Anna Nicole died of 'scarlet fever' from checking out all the Seminole men in Florida," wrote Glenda Deer. "I call bullshit on this one!" cried Kitten. Reader "Thermian" referenced our May, 11, 2006, "Xtreme Cuisine" spoof, "All I am going to say is this. Remember the article about the chef in Anthem who wanted to cook a Mexican for John Kyl? Well, this reminds me of that." And a guy named Jared offered this tidbit of praise, "This story's so good, I'd put it in my butt! Charles Tatum deserves a Pulitzer."
Pity, but they don't give Pulitzers for parodies, Jared. The highest award one can hope for is snookering in the media with such satires. And Charlie Tatum's cockeyed yarn reeled 'em in. Alex Burton, senior deputy editor of Star magazine, called Soto's number several times, telling him, "We find your story extremely compelling, and we'd like to tell it." A producer for the Court TV show Hollywood Heat, starring Ashleigh Banfield, spoke to Tatum at length before dialing up Soto in search of an interview. And Esmeralda Servin, in L.A. with the tabloid TV show Inside Edition, rang up Tatum and Johnny Soto, informing both that the show could help Soto secure the assistance of a high-end legal beagle. She also spoke ominously of Inside Edition's competition.
"I'm just hoping that Entertainment Tonight or The Insider don't take advantage of him," she worried while speaking to Tatum. "Because they've been doing a lot of that."
Inside Edition correspondent Jim Moret flew into Phoenix the Monday after the story broke, showing up with little warning at New Times' Jefferson Street offices to interview Charlie Tatum in person. Accompanied by a two-man camera crew, Moret set up in a conference room and listened intently as Tatum regaled Moret in his thick hick accent with how he ended up landing the Soto scoop. Eventually, Moret asked Tatum the $64,000 question: Was this some sort of April Fools' Day prank on the part of the paper? Tatum immediately dropped the corn-ponery and explained how he was really Stephen Lemons and that this was the third spoof in the three years he'd written for the New Times.
Moret breathed a sigh of relief that could be heard all the way back to Tinseltown. See, he suddenly didn't have to make the three-hour journey to remote Sells, which he'd planned as his next stop after his tête-à-tête with Tatum. The segment ran that Thursday on Inside Edition, and the full clip can be viewed on the New Times' home page. Now, this querulous quacker loved the way the show teased the story online and on TV, and it thought it especially cool that the show dug up a clip of Kirk Douglas from Ace in the Hole to illustrate the origin of the Charles Tatum nom de plume. But Moret failed to point out that New Times does these spoofs yearly. Inside Edition also aired tired old hack Royal Oakes (he's trotted out from time to time by L.A.-based media) as a "legal analyst." Of course, he wagged his finger at us for foolin' the public.
Does anybody note the irony here? We were getting a lecture on journalism ethics from a member of the very tabloid media we were targeting with the parody. Heh, Inside Edition usually leads with some hard-hitting scoop on tripe like Britney Spears going bald or Brangelina. Can't these televised chowder-heads just own up to the fact they were punked? Apparently not.
Indeed, two-faced Moret was lovin' up on us New Times larks before he vamoosed, makin' certain he blew enough smoke up our back ends to ensure that his cameramen captured everything the show needed. It's a time-honored reportorial ruse, one this magpie knows all too well. Yeah, we figured a shine-on was in play that day by Moret, yet endured it to be on the boob tube. Moret praised the spoof as "Genius!" before his piece aired. After the episode ran, Moret blamed its phony tone of indignation on his producers, kinda like you might blame an errant air biscuit on the family dog.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Oh, well, this wren reckons there's no bad pub. And Inside Edition was the biggest fish we swallowed, so it can't be too mad at 'em.
New Times devoured so many smaller gill-bearers that The Bird hardly has room to go into all of them.
Countless Web sites and blogs around the planet recounted this warbler's whopper as if true, including snarky defamer.com, and the navel-gazing know-it-alls at gawker.com. Though more skeptical, the CBS News Web site showbuzz.cbsnews.com still found the canard irresistible. There were calls from German and French reporters, and the New Zealand Herald went with the story without talking to anybody. Charlie Tatum even did an a.m. phoner for a talk radio show in Vancouver, Canada.
Currently, Charlie's considering taking some time off to help Johnny Soto write his autobiography. But this pesky pecker suspects the wily newsman'll be back next year with yet another cock-and-bull tale for New Times readers, though most likely under a different name.