What the Devil won't tell you
Rodeo Day, Clydesdales & the legend of Jeff Smith
This is a tribute to a columnist who came before, because even in a wheelchair he was larger than life. Though this piece is about how he sinned against the creed, Jeff Smith at least had the gumption to do it in a huge way in a piece about a Rodeo Day parade he had no use for.
The first time I met Smith was also the last time I met him. We didn't hang out. That's fine. It was like meeting a Beatle. I'd read his stuff in the Tucson Weekly pretty religiously since college. He was the one local writer I knew who wasn't one of my professors at the University of Arizona.
It's a chore to get me to read my own stuff once it's published, but Smith's work was a joy.
He rolled past my desk one day at the Tucson Citizen, which was his off-and-on gig, and I introduced myself. He shook my hand and said "Yeah, OK" and wheeled on. Good enough for me.
Smith was an outsized talent. The Tucson Weekly’s Jim Nintzel described his prose as “lightning in print.” Nintzel and I are both fanboys.
And one of his most legendary moments was on a Rodeo Day, back in the last century, when his imagination overtook his news copy. It gives me a chance to both tip the hat and wag the finger, while getting something about journalism off my chest. We're not imagining things.
The legend lives on
Say the words: “Jersey City sanitation worker” to local veteran journalists they’ll beam a smile and know the operative word is "Clydesdales."
The people who were there for the incident are either gone from the business or just plain gone. So we are basically left with the Myth of the Jersey City Sanitation Worker.
The thing you have to understand about the Rodeo Day Parade, is what a pain it is to cover. Be it at the old newsrooms of the Plant (the Tucson Newspapers building on the South Side) or the newsrooms that predated it Downtown, the Fiesta de los Vaqueros/Rodeo Parade long shared geography with the local papers.
That meant the newsrooms were off limits to traffic until after the parade unless you got up early — real early. I'm talking oh-dark-thirty early.
Smith worked for the Tucson Citizen, and working for an afternoon daily meant writing for two editions. There would be an advance to run in the edition before the parade and a piece that would be printed while the parade was going on.
It's a lot to deal with to cover a something like that. You may love a parade but they aren't the newsiest events on the calendar.
It's not really news and it's not really a feature. The parade is just the same story, different year. Finding something new to write about is tricky and annoying.
Smith apparently felt the same way. The operative year that Smith had to cover it, he did it with joyous color. His story included the perfect “R.P.” – journalist speak for “regular person” to illustrate the spectacle.
He described how a sanitation worker from Jersey City drove his son across the country just to watch the parade and it was all worth it because they got to see the Budweiser Clydesdales clop down the street with their coats shiny and their manes flowing and their height towering.
And it was such a great little vignette that the editor turned it into his lede to sell the story. I mean, it’s a needle-haystack find to get a source like that in one of the tens of thousands of people there.
At the time, the Budweiser Clydesdales were big deal in American culture. They were on TV every eight minutes. Hell, they even made an appearance in the background of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." My buddy Mike LePore made a model of these equine giants hauling a wagon full of … OK, Budweiser. Stow your modern disdain. This was before the world decided cool people only honey-nut pale-blonde, volcanic-ash ales and oat-nut cale-veggie stouts. We had our Budweiser, Michelob and Miller and we liked it.
And the guy who Smith found apparently said it was worth driving across the country just to witness because his kid watched them stride by as seen on TV.
As one generation of journalists passed the story on to the next, the quality of Smith's copy improved from pedestrian with a cool source to how Dickens would have mimicked Twain with flourishes worthy of the King James Bible.
The Clydesdales coats reflected the sun's rays with an edified hue, their manes brushed to perfection as if they emerged from a Parisian salon. Their gait muscled them down the pavement like metronomes of strength and precision.
Like that but better
There was just one teeny lil' problem with the story. Smith didn't go to the parade and just wrote whatever came to him. See, the Budweiser Clydesdales never made it to Tucson that day. But Smith blew off the assignment so he didn't know.
And this is where the story passes into legend. Facts were forgotten and lore was indulged. Former Citizen staffers don't tell an identical story. Some say it was a flooded highway between here and Phoenix that kept them out. Others don't know for sure.
What is known is that Smith made the whole thing up because, screw it, he's not covering another rodeo parade. Hell no.
The way I was told it, over and over, this episode got Smith fired, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
I talked to Mark Kimble, a Citizen reporter/editor whose lineage dates back to the Smith era. He says that's not what happened. Smith was fired after the fact for over run-of-the-mill insolence.
But this is my point. The story became legend where the reality was less important than the facts because it was just so extraordinary.
So allow me to pivot to what really bugs me about public perception concerning my beloved corps of reporters.
What journalists don't do
Nobody in a newsroom ever just makes things up.
Well, if it does happen, it's a once-in-a-generation event so people remember, and talk about it for years and years. We actually work hard to get things right and sweat it the whole damn way.
And yet, according to a Gallup poll not taken that long ago, just 36 percent of Americans had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.
It's as if what Smith did was some sort of standard operating procedure. The opposite is true.
There are a lot of reasons to be critical of coverage and reporters tend to be the most critical of all. But the accusation that we manufacture "fake news" is as insulting as it is effective.
But I can't deny those accusations have lead to suspicions.
Journalists don’t invent sources. They don’t fabricate quotes. They don’t just hit the snooze bar, miss their assignment and pretend like they covered it.
It’s like telling a surgeons “you are just trying to kill patients,” or lawyers “you mean to lose cases,” or plumbers “you are trying to stop up my sink.”
The only reasons local journalists remember it fondly is that that the assignment was a nuisance because nothing newsworthy happens other than the passing of the event itself. The first parade in 1925 was a story. Pretty much all the rest were carbon copies.
Had it been a journalist one bit less Jeff Smithy than the real thing, we wouldn't have remembered it with affection. Smith was a character. He made up a Jersey City garbage man and invoked the presence of Clydesdales who weren't even there.
Had it been anyone else, the story would have been told without affection.
"God, do you remember that ass made up that story once? Don’t do that.”
But Jeff Smith was Jeff Smith, and the event was the rodeo parade. Again.
Kimble told me he figures Smith had just had enough of it. Who cares about another rode parade, right? It wasn't a City Council vote.
Making up a small fable that became a legend was not something he would have done with a Tucson City Council meeting.
Many a glass has been raised over the story in the years since, but those toasting also agree that Smith committed a fire-able offense.
What journalists do
So we who remember this story are of two minds. We admire his huevos but this is absolutely not standard operating procedure. We rarely — any of us — would engage in what one judge used to describe Tucker Carlson's rantings as "non-literal commentary" (unless it's me trying to be obvious in my non-literalness).
I had to cover more than one Black Friday line in front of some random big box and draw inspiration from "I want that shiny digital thing over there but for only $99.99."
One would think with my relationship with mornings there would be a moment when a Jeff Smith-shaped devil on my shoulder would whisper "just hit the snooze bar." But no. Not really.
I threw the covers off, put my feet on the floor and started the day and mumbled about stupid editors. We don't just don’t make stuff up. Ever.
In fact, talk to most journalists the morning a story runs and they’ll tell you that there’s a catch in their throat, every time their phone rings up until about mid-afternoon. "Oh God, whose calling and what did I get wrong?”
Not too long ago, I wrote that Vail is a town. It's not. I do not have the powers to incorporate Vail via my keyboard. An eagle-eyed reader caught it (well, it didn't necessarily take the eyes of eagle).
I wrote it. I remember telling myself Vail’s not a town and went back and CTRL+F-ed. I found one reference but somehow missed the other.
When the error was brought to my attention, I spent the afternoon curled up on the couch, muttering “P-u-u-c-c-k.” Except that wasn’t the word.
Journalists basically take a test with every byline and the only score that is acceptable is 100 percent.
So it’s a serious pet peeve of mine that people out in the world insist that journalists just manifest stories with spells and ear of newt.
What Smith did was the equivalent of walking up to a grizzly bear and jabbing it with a stick. The flourish of the Jersey City sanitation worker provided the extra bit of dazzle as if he poked the bear singing "Y.M.C.A."
I mean if you are going to do it, do it with attitude and so brazenly, as if begging to get caught.
But at the end of the day, editors just have to know their reporters aren't doing that. The whole system would break down if the city desk required Google searches and social media confirmations that the interviews took place.
"You have to trust the people who work for you," Kimble said. "If you don't, they shouldn't be working for you."
Years later, Smith wrote his column for the Tucson Weekly, where he became a fixture of local journalism for another decade or so and new generations found him. In the 2000s, Citizen Editor and Publisher Mike Chihak hired Smith back to do a weekly column at his old paper.
Smith was fun to read. He had a cranky, eff-em-all style and gladly suffered no fool.
He was the reason that when asked to state my long-term goal on my self-appraisals at the Tucson Citizen, I would write "metro columnist."
So every time this year, I start referring to Clydesdales and "Jersey City garbage men" because the story needs to live on and so does the reason we remember his flight of fact-less fancy.
It's a legend because we couldn't believe he did it. I still can't. In more ways than one.
Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and as a communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.