Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

September 6–13, 2001

media

Untruths and Consequences

Writer Thom Nickels’ career seems to have survived unwittingly hoaxing the Inquirer. But there’s more to the story.

These days, Thom Nickels is a busy man. With the recent release of his new book, Manayunk (Arcadia Publishing), Nickels has been making the rounds on the local TV interview circuit. Thus far, he’s appeared on WCAU and KYW.

This good news is a welcome change for Nickels. Only four months ago, he was both a victim and unwitting co-conspirator of a bold and bewildering hoax that left him and the Philadelphia Inquirer deeply embarrassed. He has been relieved to find that his long career as a writer has not been seriously damaged. "Most editors understand that this wasn’t about fabricating a story to get something in print," Nickels says. Still, he is at a loss to explain why he was duped. And the fact that the prankster apparently misled Nickels in other ways as well only makes it harder to grasp.

On April 14, the Inquirer published Nickels’ op-ed "Painful silence makes the slaying of a gay man a double tragedy." Its readers woke up that spring Saturday to a skillfully crafted account of a heinous crime. In broad daylight, practically in the shadow of Independence Hall, two men were mugged, and one was fatally stabbed. The killer was likely still on the loose, but who was to say? The local media had ignored the story.

Nickels assured the Inquirer’s Commentary Page editor John Timpane that he had a credible source backing up the article. With that guarantee, Timpane ran the story without doing even the most basic fact-checking.

The Monday after the story appeared, Timpane realized he had made a terrible mistake. Timpane says he knew he’d messed up when "the police reporter got upset." If there had been a murder in broad daylight in the middle of Philadelphia, the man on the Inquirer’s cop beat insisted, he would have known about it. And if he had been consulted about the Op-Ed before it ran on Saturday, he could have saved the paper a lot of embarrassment.

The next day, the Inquirer printed a brief retraction. According to the statement, "the writer himself believed the report of the crime to be true, based on several interviews with a source who provided extensive details." The paper admitted that it did not check the facts before running the article and that when it did, the police "confirmed that no fatal stabbing like the one reported … took place in that neighborhood in recent weeks."

When the Inquirer disavowed the story, Nickels called his source, Steve Lev, whom he describes as "a local writer and close friend." Lev refused to discuss the matter with City Paper. According to Nickels, when he confronted his friend, Lev responded, "‘Tommy, why don’t you just tell your editor that you made the story up.’" Nickels said Lev then admitted that the murder never happened and went on to tell him a bizarre story: There was a movie about a murder that didn’t happen, and when it was shown, it inspired a similar murder.

This seemed odd to Nickels, but apparently the blending of fact and fiction is nothing new for Lev. According to Nickels and another source who declined to be named, Lev claims to have written major Hollywood screenplays like Wonder Boys under the pen name Steve Kloves (which he pronounced "cloves," like the spice). Indeed, Steve Kloves is the big-name Oscar-nominated screenwriter who adapted Wonder Boys to film. His latest project, a movie version of Harry Potter, is due out this Thanksgiving. But according to two sources City Paper contacted, one at Warner Bros., which is producing the Harry Potter movie, and another at Creative Artists Agency, which represents Kloves, Steve Kloves isn’t a pen name. He’s a real person, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and kids. Furthermore, he pronounces his name "clo-vis," with two syllables.

"This is beyond weird," Nickels said when he was informed of Warner Bros.’ statement. "Steve had said his wife was killed in a plane crash."

According to Nickels, Lev also claimed to have been an aide-de-camp to Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam.

Embellishment is a tempting vice for all writers. Even Thom Nickels, who thought he was reporting the truth, couldn’t resist the urge to add the perfect little tidbit for a local paper in a city with an inferiority complex: that the supposedly murdered gay man loved living in Philadelphia. Apparently Steve Lev’s embellishments went much further, but even he is not alone. Just last month, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis was suspended from his tenured teaching post at Mount Holyoke College for lying about his service in Vietnam. Ellis had told the Boston Globe that he went to Vietnam in 1965 and served on the staff of General Westmoreland. In that case, he must have known Steve Lev, Westmoreland’s aide-de-camp.

When the last American troops pulled out of Vietnam, Hollywood screenwriter Steve Kloves was 13 years old.

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