I take writing seriously, and I was recently dumbfounded when a young journalist attempted to use me for something dishonest.
In the 20-plus years I’ve been in journalism, I’ve seen all kinds of sources do a lot of interesting things to get themselves, their ideas, events, experiences and/or philanthropy in the media. However, this month I experienced something I never had before professionally.
A few weeks ago, we received a news tip from a young journalist working in Salt Lake City who wanted to tell us the story of his grandfather. His grandfather spent his life traveling and writing. He was a former citizen of Palmer Lake for 12 years and wrote about Palmer Lake frequently. However, his grandfather’s works went unpublished by the time he passed away 10 years ago.
Without attempting to ruin the career of a young writer who made a very bad decision, I am going to call him James and I will call his grandfather Leon Leon moving forward. Now one thing I love writing about is other writers, and given Leon’s ties to Palmer Lake, we felt there was enough local connection to warrant a feature in The Tribune.
In addition, James and his family had established a foundation for his grandfather in hopes of bringing his writings into the spotlight and creating a stage for other unknown authors to get noticed. The foundation had a basic but professional looking website at LeonLeonFoundation.org. Again, the names have been changed.
My own mother was an unknown author. She had worked on a novel or series of novels during most of my young life. She passed away in 2007, after which my father took it upon himself to self-publish her novel de ella into a five-book series, and did so before he passed away. So James’ story was interesting to me because I identified with it on a small level.
We spoke for about an hour, and Leon Leon’s story was fantastic. He was born in poverty and given up for adoption a few days later. Raised by an Irish couple, the husband of which was an engineer with the railroad who educated Leon during their travels from him as a family. This is important to know for what came a few days after James and I spoke.
Now, especially for sources who I am not familiar with from the community and those who live out of state, I usually perform internet research on either the subject of the feature or at least the person we are using as a source. During our conversation, James told me about growing up in Palmer Lake, graduating high school in Colorado Springs, and where he went to college before landing his journalism job in Utah. Afterward, I looked James’ up on the internet and was able to corroborate what he told me about himself.
However, Leon Leon was a different story. Obviously I found the foundation’s website and the 10th anniversary obituary which was published by The Gazette a couple weeks prior. I couldn’t find much else, although I was expecting not to — since Leon Leon had had an undocumented adoption and was homeschooled.
James and I even texted each other a bit over the next couple days, talking about writing, sharing my own experiences, my YouTube channel for writing tips and my own website.
So I wrote what I felt was, not to brag, a wonderful story of this lifetime traveler and author who came from a rough start to become a talented unseen writer and a family looking to honor him with the spotlight 10 years after his death. I filed the story that Friday after James and I spoke.
I was proud and excited to see my story of Leon Leon’s story in print. However, the following Sunday, I received a text message from James which absolutely floored me.
“Hey, man,” he text. “I want to apologize. I thought it would be a fun experiment to invent a fake grandfather to use as a writing alias, but it went too far when I used you to write an article about it. Leon doesn’t exist and I’m sorry I wasted your time. I do appreciate the conversation we had. It made me realize that what you’re doing is the real deal and made me want to approach writing from a more honest position. Sorry again!”
I must have read the text three times before the gravity of what he told me finally sunk in. I couldn’t believe he or anyone had done that in an attempt to make a name for themselves as a writer. I snapped into emergency mode and contacted my editor immediately, telling her although we were two days past the deadline, we had to kill the Leon Leon story before it was published as fact.
Luckily, James came forward with the truth in time for us to do that. To this day, I have trouble wrapping my head around that approach to someone getting his or her writing from her noticed. What he told me about himself was fact, but everything about Leon Leon was 100% a work of fiction.
What makes me even more stunned by this individual’s approach? If he had spent so much time creating a backstory for his faux-Grandpa character, why would he not have spent that time developing a legitimate work of fiction about a grandson who finds his grandfather’s writings and his journey to get them published? To me, that’s actually a book I would read, or a movie starring Wes Bentley (from TV’s “Yellowstone”). It’s a legitimate story idea of which, with some development, could have been a very interesting, quality first novel for a young writer.
Instead, this journalist, attempting to deny his own professionalism by creating a fictional character to use as an alias, attempts to get the media to do stories about said fictional character to further his own creative writing. Luckily, before he could go any further, his conscience got the best of him.
To this day, I haven’t responded to his text. I dwelled on what my response would be for a couple days after, but in the end, I was reminded of the grace my mother always maintained toward people who were misguided and in need of life experience to correct their approach to it.
I did revisit the Leon Leon Foundation website after receiving that text, and although the domain name and site was still active, every bit of content on the site had been deleted. I left James alone, now having felt his regret that he was legitimate.
I’m just glad I was able to unknowingly help inspire him to see his wrongdoings before he went even further and got himself in very real trouble.
Benn Farrell is a Monument-based freelance writer and playwright.