Porn story puzzle

Behind the Infiltrator mess at SF Weekly

By Tali Woodward

According to his Jan. 11 Infiltrator column in SF Weekly, writer and all-around prankster Harmon Leon had a pretty silly time at "the AVN Awards (otherwise known as the 'Porn Academy Awards') held in a large nightclub in Los Angeles."

As is his habit, Leon arrived on the scene with a concocted identity. This time he was impersonating a German porn star named Dieter Leitershvantz, who was supposedly famous for his appearance in the fictitious film Loaded Lederhosen. Dieter watched porn star T.T. Boy accept an award, and he saw a woman in a Viking helmet perform a "choreographed dance to a Van Halen song."

The problem, as people from the porn industry quickly noticed, was that this year's AVN (Adult Video News) awards - which took place just four days before the column ran - weren't held in a Los Angeles nightclub. As usual, the event was staged in a Las Vegas hotel. T.T. Boy didn't win an award, and there was no a dancer sporting a Viking helmet.

Perhaps because of the general tumult about the identity of author JT LeRoy and the fabrications of "memoirist" James Frey, the immediate reaction to the inconsistency was fairly vicious, with bloggers and others comparing Leon to other disgraced writers.

A week after the Dieter column ran - and after local blog SFist had dug into the controversy - SF Weekly published an editor's note saying Leon's column was a new version of an old magazine story, based on his experiences at another porn industry awards show several years ago. The note put the blame for the misrepresentation squarely on Leon, and concluded, "The column, and Leon's byline, will no longer be appearing in our pages." A day later, the Web version of the story was corrected, and then, shortly thereafter, the column disappeared entirely.

Still, something didn't add up.

Above the ominous-sounding send-off, the note - presumably penned by editor Tom Walsh, though it is unsigned - said, "In the editing process, Leon said that the column was based upon his attendance at a previous AVN award show. I should have pointed this out to readers."

Let's get this straight: The Weekly knew that Leon based his column on old reporting, printed the column without clarifying that crucial fact, and then turned around and blamed Leon for the criticism directed its way?

Leon's brand of gonzo journalism certainly poses some dizzying ethical questions - Is it really fair to base a story on research that is gathered dishonestly? And once you start making stuff up, where does it end?

But there's nothing particularly complicated about this. If the editor knew this installment wasn't based on a recent experience, why didn't he spell that out? Did he just want to avoid acknowledging that the paper was printing some seriously old news?

Leon was more than willing to chat about the incident. As he tells it, the version of the column he submitted to Walsh (which he also showed us) made no mention whatsoever of the AVN awards. He says that, when Walsh inquired about making the column more "current," he submitted a line for the top of the story saying that he had some idea what the awards were like, having attended a similar event in the past. Instead the column ran with AVN explicitly described as the setting.

"The main point," Leon said, "is that the editor knew the week before publication that it was an old story."

Walsh told the Guardian he was misled: "I did not know it was seven years previous. If I had known ... I would have killed the column."

Leon - like many freelancers - routinely repackages his work for multiple publications. We found a couple of very similar Leon pieces that ran first in the Sacramento News & Review, then later in the Weekly. We also found two that ran in SF Weekly before the News & Review. In fact, there was a brief online controversy about the Sacto version of Leon's account of infiltrating a white supremacist group. The story said that the infiltration was sparked by the group's flyering of Sacramento neighborhoods, though in reality Leon had met up with the racists months beforehand.

Who was the News & Review's editor at the time? Tom Walsh.

Full disclosure: City editor Steven T. Jones worked for Walsh in Sacramento, and they parted on unfriendly terms. Jones was not involved in the writing or editing of this story.