Sarasota News Leader, a startup news website, launched its first e-edition Friday, Aug. 10. And it had big news.
Big, fake news, that is.
When Pelican Press News Editor Alex Mahadevan opened his copy of the e-edition, the headline on the top story proclaimed: “Trump Tower takes Siesta Key by surprise.”
And the lead of the story said: “News that real estate tycoon Donald Trump has obtained options on land in Siesta Village for a planned 50-story Trump Tower has residents of Siesta Key in an uproar.”
The story went on to say Trump had made plans to acquire and raze the Terrace Condominiums for what “easily will become the most recognizable building on the entire Gulf Coast.”
Surprised himself by the news, Mahadevan began calling Sarasota County officials, Siesta Key residents and business owners to determine the validity of the story. He learned, however, it was a hoax — intended only for him.
Via interviews with others who had received the e-edition, Mahadevan learned that he alone had received a News Leader edition that was different than all of the others’ e-editions.
Siesta Key resident and Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, who was on vacation in the Florida Keys when Mahadevan left her a message regarding the Trump tower, told the Pelican Press she took time out of her vacation to try to verify the story.
“I guess it was an April Fools’ joke for the middle of August,” Patterson said. “Anyone who has heard about this fake story should know that no zoning would accommodate such a tower,” added Patterson.
After Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta scanned his digital edition for the Trump story last week, he told the Pelican Press: “Someone’s playing a joke on you.”
Mark Smith, chairman of the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp., said he was told by the Sarasota News Leader the fake story “was a practical joke targeted only for Alex.”
Terrace East resident Peter van Roekens wasn’t laughing when he received a call from Mahadevan about the story.
“We already have enough problems trying to get accurate reporting (on Siesta Key),” van Roekens said last week. Van Roekens later called the Sarasota News Leader to complain and told the Pelican Press, “They apologized profusely and said it would never happen again.”
Lourdes Ramirez, vice president of the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) and former president of the Siesta Key Association, noted that the Observer Media Group always puts out an appropriately timed April Fools edition for its papers.
“Stuff like that is appropriate in early April and is sent to all readers,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said she would have taken the News Leader’s fake story seriously if she had received it, because there have been past rumors about a high-rise hotel coming to Siesta Key.
Said Siesta Key Beach Club owner Chris Brown: “I’ve known (SNL News Editor) Rachel (Brown-Hackney) a long time. She never struck me as someone who would go along with something so vindictive.”
Reached for comment, Sarasota News Leader General Manager Robert Hackney confirmed that Mahadevan was the only one to receive the fake Trump story.
Q&A WITH ROBERT HACKNEY
The following is a transcript of an interview Tuesday between the Pelican Press and Robert Hackney, general manager of the Sarasota News Leader, a digital publication.
Do you know that Pelican Press News Editor Alex Mahadevan received a fake story about a Trump tower coming to Siesta Key at the top of your e-edition last week?
It’s a possibility.
Did it get sent to anyone else?
I’m sure it did not.
Would you comment or explain what happened?
It would be hard to explain. It’s obvious what happened. It’s not what I consider to be news.
Was this a deliberate attempt to dupe Alex Mahadevan and The Observer?
What do you think?
Could Alex expect to receive altered e-editions like this in the future?
It’s a possibility.
Why would you do this?
We have concerns. We have concerns with certain individuals there (at Pelican Press and The Observer). This isn’t what I consider to be news.