A supposed spokesman for Southern California's native Panamanians who was interviewed on KTTV Channel 11's 10 p.m. news last Tuesday called himself Arturo Valdez, chairman of the USA-Panama Friendship Council, but he looked suspiciously like a bad actor wearing a phony mustache and forcing an accent.
As it turns out, those viewers who believed Valdez was an ersatz Latino were absolutely right.
KTTV's director of news operations, Rolando Santos, confirmed late Friday that his station had, indeed, been the victim of a hoax.
"I went to several places before I found the mustache," said Kurt Rappaport, a 22-year-old USC graduate and son of attorney Floyd Rappaport. "I bought the mustache at Hollywood Costume & Magic Shop on Hollywood Boulevard 15 minutes before the interview."
In a 10-second snippet near the beginning of the newscast, Rappaport deadpanned a muted diatribe in broken English, aimed at Panamanian stongman Manuel Noriega on behalf of what KTTV anchor Karl Brown called the "hundreds . . . perhaps thousands" of Panamanians in Southern California.
"They see right through him, like a clear curtain," said Rappaport/Valdez. "They see Manuel Noriega and they see what he's bringing to Panama and how he defames the names of the Panamanians. They are prepared to do anything they can by sending money, forces--anything with help of United States."
Rappaport's ruse began purely by chance, when he got a call Tuesday afternoon about 5:30 at his Beverly Hills home. The woman on the phone identified herself as a KTTV assignment desk representative who wanted to know if she had reached the Panamanian Consulate. Without missing a beat, Rappaport answered that it was, indeed, the consulate, but that no high officials were there at the moment. He got a telephone number, waited a few minutes, called back as Arturo Valdez and was invited down to the station.
"I'd just finished playing tennis and I had to take a shower, put on a suit and tie. I dug out an old pair of glasses, but I had to shop around for the mustache," he said.
By the time he arrived at Fox TV on Sunset Boulevard, his mustache was slightly askew. So, when asked if he wanted any pancake makeup before he went on camera, Rappaport/Valdez answered: "No! I am not here to be beautiful. I am here to speak for my country."
When he got home, Rappaport tried to call the Panamanian Consulate but instead got a recording for the Panama Maritime & Business Consultant Corp. After a few inquiries, he discovered what the news station had not--the consulate closed its doors here on Sept. 1.
Rappaport said he thought the prank was over until he got a call the next day from a prominent TV network newsmagazine. According to Rappaport, he nearly went on national television Wednesday night with his false mustache, but a last-minute news story preempted him.
"Basically, if you look at the situation, somebody played a prank on us," said KTTV's Santos late Friday. "We're trying to track down what happened right now. Obviously, it was not intentional."
According to Santos, his staff followed proper procedures, beginning with a call to officials in Washington. "It wasn't as if somebody (Rappaport) called us out of the blue," Santos said.
Nevertheless, when the wrong number was dialed, Santos said, Rappaport chose to hoodwink the station rather than be honest.
Rappaport did not deny misrepresenting himself and said that he believes the whole episode was funny. But he added that the lesson of Arturo Valdez is far more serious.
"What ever happened to responsibility in television journalism?" he said. "Any Tom, Dick or Harry can basically walk into a TV newsroom and do an interview as . . . well, fill in the blank."
He said he had not heard from KTTV since news of the hoax broke Friday night.
"And I don't know why," he deadpanned. "They've got my number."