Every journalist has their finest story. Like a movie star or an author, it’s what will be mentioned in their obituary, and people will think, ah, I remember that.
For Mark Gardiner, it was his compelling account of how an Italian motorcyclist saved people trapped in the horrific 1999 Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. You probably read it: “Searching for Spadino,” about how Pierlucio “Spadino” Tinazzi rescued motorists trapped in the smoke, slaloming them on his bike through the burning traffic, back and forth six kilometres each way from the carnage to safety.
It’s a great story, first published in Cycle Canada in 2003, and then again in Rider, and then in Bike. It sticks with you because Spadino was one of 39 people who died in the fire. He rode one last time back to the scene and pulled a trucker into a safety room designed to withstand four hours of flames, except the fire raged for 50 hours. Spadino was later awarded medals for bravery from both the Italian government and the Swiss-based International Federation of Motorcycling.
Except it’s not true. Gardiner, a Canadian who lives in Kansas City, finally learned the true story this year when he researched a retrospective for the New York Times: Spadino rode through the smoke and up to the fire, pulled the trucker to the safety room, and that was it. The official minute-by-minute account by French police made it clear the rides to safety were a fanciful fabrication at the time, presumably made and perpetuated by people searching for a hero from the tragedy. Gardiner was unable to verify it either way because everyone was under a court-ordered gag order. You can read his recent stories about it here in the Columbia Journalism Review, and here at Revzilla.
“Finding any mistake in a published story is deflating. But I’d taken pride in this story for so long,” he wrote. “I had seen so much to relate to in Spadino who was, like me, a biker and (at that point in my life) very lonely. It felt like someone I had been married to for years had been cheating on me all along.”
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks at CMG for Fake News. Last Monday, we published an April Fool story about the Cabot Trail being closed to motorcyclists because their loud bikes were holding up the RVs on the hills. We wrote it deadpan, as any good April Fool piece should be, and a whole bunch of people were taken in by the prank – I spent much of Monday and Tuesday dealing with the fallout. The Nova Scotia Tourism Board fielded calls from concerned riders thinking it might be true, despite its absurdity; even after we published an admission on top of the story in bold red font announcing it as an April Fool, and even after I wrote about the whole thing on the site on Tuesday, people continued to question it.
My favourite comment was from a reader called NoName, who wrote “do you really want people who can’t use common sense to visit your area? I mean really, it’s bad enough that they can vote.” And from James, who wrote: “I think April Fool’s is more important than ever because apparently a whole lot of people believe anything without a second thought. It’s not fake news, it’s a once-a-year reminder to think critically about what you read.”
I called up Mark Gardiner in Kansas to ask about his own fallout from the “Searching for Spadino” story. “It was cathartic to write it,” he said, referring to his recent admissions of the truth. “When I realized I’d got it wrong, I felt I had a responsibility to correct the record. It seems timely to me, in this age when journalists are accused of writing fake news.
“It’s not a superhero story any more, but he still died trying to do the right thing, above and beyond his duty. If I’d known the truth at the time, I probably wouldn’t have followed it up, but I feel my portrait of the guy is still accurate. I’m glad I wrote about him. I don’t think I’m abusing the word to say, I love that guy.”
And I’m glad I read Gardiner’s story at the time, and that it stuck with me all these years. Spadino is still a hero for riding into that tunnel when he didn’t have to, and for trying to save the life of a stranger. It’s important now to learn the truth, but it’s just as important to find inspiration from unexpected places, even when it’s unwittingly embellished.
It’s not Fake News – in the modern sense, that’s news that somebody has created to further an agenda. Neither Mark Gardiner the journalist, nor Spadino the everyday security guard, had an agenda.
Our April Fool though? Yup – that was Fake News, and we’re unrepentant here at Canada Moto Guide. “For goodness sake – we need to learn to laugh at ourselves occasionally. It’s good for the ‘soul’,” wrote reader TrevorM. “In this day and age of ‘fake news’ I think it is actually critical that everyone have a well-functioning BS detector and know how to use it. CMG is doing a public service methinks. Well played! loved it!”
Reader NoName also asked us to please start planning next year’s prank as soon as possible. Don’t worry – it’s half-written already. We can hardly wait.