The story that died in a lie

Questions about truthfulness kill publication

The reporter had confirmation, interviews and photographs. He also had questions about the truthfulness and motives of the story’s subject.

By David Westerfield

David Westerfield is a writer and assistant features editor at The Times, Shreveport, LA.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 6 (June 1991), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Christopher Smith Jr.[1] found the woman he wanted in Tijuana, Mexico — and he was her.

In October 1988, Smith called the newsroom at The Times in Shreveport, LA. I took the call and didn’t quite know what to make of it. You’ve had a sex change operation and you want to talk about it? Why?

Smith, whose first name was now Christina, said she wanted to help others who felt like she once did. “They don’t have to go around and be miserable. There is hope,” she told me.

But was that reason for me to write a story? I wasn’t sure. Yet what a rare interview this would be for our readers. Smith was a graduate of a local high school and was now living in Southern California. I asked her to let me call her back.

Features editor Martha Fitzgerald and I only had to talk for a few minutes before deciding to at least go ahead with an interview. After that we could decide. We informed editor Frank Sutherland what I was doing.

I arranged a meeting and interviewed the 23-year-old Smith. We also got photos. Smith told me that after graduating from high school, she moved to Texas and then to San Diego. She dressed as a woman and basically lived as one for two years before having the $5000 operation at the Hospital Clinica Quintana.

“I wanted it for my Christmas present. I saved up for it and worked hard,” she said. “I have everything a woman could want.” And she wasn’t at all afraid to tell me about it.

“Why would I keep it a secret? I don’t mind if people here find out because I don’t live here.” But she was afraid to let me call San Diego, where she said she was six months away from completing a licensed practical nursing program. She refused to give the names of anyone there.

Her parents still lived in Shreveport, but Smith said they accepted her and still loved her. She knew they would gain in understanding in time. “They said I look nice,” she said.

After the interview, I stopped by her high school alma mater and picked up a copy of her senior class yearbook. There she was: Christopher Smith Jr. The resemblance was undeniable.

Back in the newsroom, I reported in with Fitzgerald. She thought if we could verify what Smith had said about the operation, we had a story Times readers would be interested in because this was once a Shreveport resident. We would run it, but not sensationalize it.

I contacted Dr. John Ronald Brown in San Ysidro, California, and he said that he had performed the operation on Smith. “These people are females,” he told me. “It is a driving force within them.”

At this point, we had the interview, before-and-after photos and medical confirmation. All we were really lacking were comments from the parents.

After phoning several times and getting no answer, I drove to their house. No one was home, but across the street I found Smith’s cousin. Smith had come to see her a few days earlier.

“I can’t believe it, but it is true. I saw it with my own eyes,” she said. She knew Smith had always wanted to be a woman, but she couldn’t get used to the new name: “He’ll always be Junior to me.”

Fitzgerald told me to try again for the parents. I initially disagreed because the facts had been confirmed, a relative had given us some great quotes and Smith was not a minor. She argued that the parents would be affected more than anyone by this story and even if they refused to be quoted, we should let them know we were doing the story and triple check our facts.

I went back to their house and ended up leaving a note in the door, telling them about the story and asking them to call me. Smith’s mother finally phoned me at 10:30 PM and she was furious, saying they would be devastated if the story ran. They would not answer any questions for it. She told me flat out that we simply could not print the story on her son.

I told his mother what Smith had said about their reaction to the operation and she countered by saying they refused to see him. He was no longer welcome at their house. It was always “he.” This was still their son.

It became clear we had a new problem: Smith had lied. His parents were showing no acceptance and even less understanding. I told Fitzgerald about the phone call and then repeated the essence of the conversation to Sutherland. We all wondered anew about Smith’s motive for calling us.

This person had volunteered to go on the record with a story few people would dare discuss publicly. So that others wouldn’t have to go around and be miserable? Sutherland didn’t buy it. His feeling was that Smith was trying to use our newspaper to get back at her parents for things we didn’t know about. The story would be her revenge.

Motive, though, was not the critical factor for Sutherland.

“If she lied to us about the parents’ reaction, what does that do to her credibility? We can’t trust her,” he said.

For him, the lie we had caught Smith in immediately cast a shadow on everything else she had told us. And parts of her story, particularly concerning her life in California, she refused to let us verify.

And that was that. The story died in a lie. My impulse reaction was to disagree: her credibility was really not an issue because we had confirmed the operation through other sources. But when I thought about that mother’s voice — the pain, the embarrassment — I was just as glad the story never made it into print. 

[1] Since The (Shreveport) Times never published the story, the name of the subject has been changed. 

 

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