Hearne: The Media’s Manufacturing of Secret Santa

Time to lay the Secret Santa cards on the table…

Like the myth of Robin Hood – the dude who allegedly shot arrows and stole from the rich to give to the poor but in all likelihood never even existed – the story of businessman Larry Stewart as Secret Santa, was a carefully crafted PR concoction. By Stewart and editors and writers – not journalists mind you – at the Kansas City Star and later Channel 9. It was a holiday heartstring tug the newspaper trotted out every year around Christmas on its front page

In short the Star milked Secret Santa for everything he was worth.

Even this year – three years after Stewart’s death – hard news reporter, Tony Rizzo, still got stuck doing the Secret Santa schlock honors.

"Their smiles cut through the sharp chill of a drab December morning," Rizzo panted breathlessly. "And their tears of joy washed away – if only for the moment – the dire circumstances of their lives."

All that over a stranger handing someone a $100 bill? Please.

The fact is Secret Santa was one of Kansas City’s worst kept secrets.

The $100 bill handing out dude was anything but a secret to pretty much anybody and everybody who knew or knew of him. It’s no news accident that he got front page treatment at the


on TV.

And know this, Secret Santa didn’t come to light because of investigative reporting. His public persona was a PR schmooze from the start.

The bottom line: Stewart was a boastful businessman who loved playing bigshot and hanging with D-list celebs like former football bad boy Alex Karras (the dude who played Mongo and knocked out the horse in the movie Blazing Saddles).

Had the Lone Ranger or Superman  been as cavalier about concealing their identities, the comic book super hero industry might have collapsed. For all Stewart’s storied $100 bill Christmas cheer, he was basically a dude with a king-sized penchant for boasting and partying who came up with a schtick and sold it to the media.

And while the Star prides itself on reporting the news, not creating it, that was hardly the case with Stewart.

Year after year the newspaper sent a reporter along, to sensationalize his money give away. As for actual reporting, nowhere in this year’s Secret Santa sequel, for example, does it say how much was given away. That wasn’t not the Star’s mission; their objective was to dramatize, in three or four examples, someone breaking down and crying or vowing to spend the $$$ to keeping warm in the winter.

The only thing approaching an accounting of the money doled out in this year’s Secret Santa story totals- around $2,700.

That’s chump change compared to the kinda dough unsung locals give to charitiy. Good deeds of far greater magnitude go unreported and un-sensationalized in all but the most extreme, seven-figure instances.

Years ago I prevailed on Star publisher Mark Zieman on journalistic grounds to allow me to report about Stewart.

Fat chance. I argued the only one keeping Stewart’s identity secret was the paper, but no way Zieman was about to kill the golden news goose.

Here’s why…

Had Stewart’s name been released it would have been anticlimactic.

Few would have cared. What made Secret Santa special was that he might be somebody famous – recognizable anyway. Someone like Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt. Emanuel Cleaver or Donald Hall. That he was Joe Nobody would have drained the mystery and romance from the tale.

Adios front page stories!

Oddly, about the only major media in town that didn’t know Secret Santa’s identity was the Pitch.

I was tight with Pitch editor Tony Ortega prior to his leaving KC a few years back (and eventually becoming editor of New York’s Village Voice). Ortega had been working me to learn Secret Santa’s identity. He thought it might be flamboyant local millionaire Del Dunmire.

Ortega was wrong.

Later, after being turned down by Zieman on me doing the story, I more-or-less let Ortega in on who it was. Ortega called Zieman and the jig was up. However the fact that Stewart had contracted cancer allowed the Star to milk the story even more.

So what kind of guy was Stewart?

Based on my dealings, a bully, a boozer and a braggart.

Most of my encounters with him went down at former KCMO-AM radio host Mike Murphy’s Salvation Army fundriasers. He was friendly, a bit guarded, a life-of-the-party sort of guy. When I saw him he was usually cocktailing and rubbing elbows with bar buddies and local celebs like George Brett.

My only run in with Stewart went down five years prior to his death in 2002.

That’s when local photographer Debbie Sauer told me about a song Stewart wrote called  "Remember 9-11-01."  Stewart was backing a local country crooner wannabe named Doug Davis who Stewart was hoped could use his song to become the next Garth Brooks.

Never happened.

                                                                                                             (Singer Doug Davis)


(Davis Web site says he now resides in Nashville with his last listed live show having taken place in September of 2006.)

Stewart got mad at Sauer because she had spoken to me about Davisand told me a story about her writing  to President Bush about the song and getting a positive response back.

"I sent it to him the day before the first anthrax scare at the White House," Sauer said then. "My point was here’s a song by a guy who says he’d never been touched by a war and was just now starting to understand why people respect the national anthem so much."

Sauer was shaken by Stewart’s hammering her and asked me to help calm him. Here’s what went down.

I got a call back at the Star from Stewart who promptly made me aware that he was having a cocktail on the beach outside his pal Karras’ oceanside home in California. It was a pleasant enough but Stewart was trying to bully me and talking down about Sauer. From that point forward Sauer says she never got any further business from him.

 "It was something that was not that big a deal," Sauer says. "(But) Larry got real controlling…For some reason he felt he could control everything I did because he paid me…I was taking pictures (of Davis) and he paid me to go to Nashville and Strugis. It had nothing to do with Secret Santa."

As for Stewart’s keeping Secret Santa secret, "He did like to brag about it a little bit," Sauer says. "I don’t know if that’s the right word to use. Your intuition on Larry, I think, is somewhat correct."

 Which brings us to the matter of if Stewart really as rich as he wanted folks to believe he was and how much actual money he gave away.

 Since the Star didn’t bother to hold Stewart accountable while they were jerking him off, we’ll never know.

USA Today properly reported that it was Stewart who "estimated" that he gave away $1.3 million over 26 years. Bogusly, the Star‘s Lynn Franey "reported" that same number – without attribution or verification.

 That kind of sloppy reporting. ladies and gentlemen, is how myths are made.

Longtime Stewart friend Mike Murphy has no idea how much Secret Santa gave away although he went on Murphy’s show and donated $20,000.

Whatever the amount, Murphy suspects Stewart never really had very much money.

"I don’t think he did," Murphy says. "He built that big house in Lee’s Summit and he had to sell it. I think that’s why he got divorced…He was my greatest friend (but) I think he gave all his money away."

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14 Responses to Hearne: The Media’s Manufacturing of Secret Santa

  1. john says:

    What a piss poor article!
    What a horrible article! You’re bashing the poor guy who gave away a lot of his money, had cancer and is now passed away. Are you forreal?

  2. Cliffy says:

    Am I having a deja vous?
    Or is Hearne’s site all fucked up again?

    It’s a lousy read anyway … I don’t need to see it twice.

  3. asfuio says:

    You post an article tearing down a dead man’s charitable works…..which includes parts of the article that repeats itself three times (ending two times with “So I pretty much let Ortega…” without finishing the thought, and then you have the gall to complain about sloppy reporting? When you don’t even bother proofing your stories? Three times. This story repeats itself three times.

    Yeah, I guess I’ve got it straight. The Star wins and “citizen journalism” takes another head-first flop into the septic tank. No wonder The Star isn’t worried.

  4. Johny says:

    How do you live with yourself Hearne?
    It’s sad that Hearne has it in for the guy eventhough he’s been dead for a few years.

    So let me get this straight, the guy really wasen’t that rich but still spent over a million of his own money. But yet, that wasn’t good enough for you.

    Hearne has it in for the guy because he wasen’t a “Ultra” rich Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Daddy Warbucks kind of guy and the number he gave out wasn’t in the billions. Just an ” Joe Nobody” who tried to make a few lives better on Christmas.

    How do you do it Hearne? Really? How to you live with yourself?

  5. ffgjh says:

    YEAH. FUCK The Star for wanting to help poor people. And then they have the gall this year to go begging for Harvesters! At Christmas, of all times, they make us worry about the hungry with a goddamned food drive.

    I mean after all, what can poor people do for you? Nothing. What kind of satisfaction do you get from helping them? None. Who wants to help poor people anyway? No one! Right, Hearne? Yeah!

  6. Gavin says:

    The Best Part…
    is how this article is disdainful of the dead guy for hanging out with “d-list celebrities.” This coming from a website that feverishly publishes the random, rambling musings of Craig Glazer even when he talks about how he used to hang out with that dude who played the Indian dude in “48 Hours.”

  7. HARLEY says:

    Met Larry Stewart at a community meeting before his death.
    How can a piece of shit like you even write an article like this?
    A piece of shit who never really worked for his money but got it from daddy.
    A loser who was fired from the star….
    This has to be the lowest piece of shit article by a piece of shit disgusting
    human being.
    You are a disgrace for writing this article. Larry may not have had the money
    but what he had he gave away to needy people he never met nor knew.
    Who cares whether he gave away 1 million or 1 thousand dollars…its all because
    of his heart that he did it.
    You are the lowest piece of scum for writing this article. It’s the pure trash and
    shit you have become famous for. Trying to destroy an honest god fearing…and extremely
    charitable man after his death is disgusting.
    Oh…and his secret santa continues today….there are many “secret santas” operating across the
    country giving away money to other needy people because of what he started.
    How low can you go hearne? How disgusting can you become? You are the lowest
    form of shit ever for this story….no other reason for putting this out than to attack larry….
    Have you decency or heart……no wonder your life is a pitiful excuse!

  8. chuck says:

    Whew! Little blow back there…
    Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?


  9. Annie says:

    You’re an ASSHOLE!!
    WOW – What a fucking idiot you are. I will NEVER EVER read an article that you write again, I always had heard that nobody liked you, and now I understand why.

    Your story has no credibility at all and clearly you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

    Shame on you, way to start off a new year. I hope 2011 treats you like shit, just the way you treat everyone else…what a joke of a reporter you are.

    Rest In Peace Larry Stewart, you were a great man and your legend lives on.

  10. Hearne says:

    Hats off to Chuck
    For the Lincoln reference. Apparently some of the comments crowd don’t like actually knowing the story behind the story here. It is what it is. Trust me, this story should have been written years ago, before Stewart’s death. But I wasn’t allowed to tell it because the Star wanted to keep milking it. The Pitch wanted to do the story. Uh, the dude who now is the editor of the Village Voice. Again, it is what it is. I guess I’m the guy who told the kids Santa doesn’t really exist. Reality bites, huh?

  11. Cliffy says:

    Is Hearne more like Woodward or Bernstein?
    How many Christmas lights are there REALLY on the Plaza?

    What does Gary Lezak think the weather will be like for (name any event)?

    Mocking the Star for using antiquated technology for its 3-D issue while hosting one of the most technologically-laughable web sites in web history.

    Report after report on the Westport death while not actually reporting a damned thing.

    WaterFire sucks!

    Marilyn Maye!!!

    Hearne really breaks the “need to know” stuff.

  12. chuck says:

    I am NOT trying to piss anyone off, REALLY!!
    Especially Annie.

    So, this comment only refers to MY OWN WARPED SENSE OF HUMOR. I am not trying to piss of Herne or Annie, but jeeze…

    Annie’s comment, from the top to bottom, just killed me. I had tears running down my cheeks.


    You’re an ASSHOLE!!
    Annie 10:09:15 AM – Tue. Jan 4. 2011

    WOW – What a fucking idiot you are. I will NEVER EVER read an article that you write again, I always had heard that nobody liked you, and now I understand why.

    Your story has no credibility at all and clearly you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

    Shame on you, way to start off a new year. I hope 2011 treats you like shit, just the way you treat everyone else…what a joke of a reporter you are


    The “Your an Asshole!!” with the two explanation marks got me goin, then as I read the rest I just fell outta the chair.

    I can just see some little petite (Maybe not, no offense, its my day dream…) lady stampin her foot and crossing her arms really hard and getting truly offended.

    Sorry, its just the explosive reaction to this story has for some sick reason got me laughin my ass off.

    I didn’t know the guy and have no dog in whatever dissagreement this article has caused, but all of the comments for some reason have me giggling like a grade schooler.

    Ok, I jsut read every single headline again, and again, I am laughing my ass off.

    “A True Piece of Shit”

    “Your an Asshole”

    Whew…heh, heh.

    Gotta admit, its quite a reaction.

    Ok, sorry if I offended anyone. I am still gigglin.

  13. Hearne says:

    Sounds like Cliffy is an avid reader…

  14. hearne says:

    Coming Soon; Secret Santa, the Sequel
    Calm down, it won’t be that bad….promise!

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