What can you say about a trusted professional who makes stuff up and publishes it as fact?
Last week, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair joined Janet Cooke, formerly of the Washington Post, the New Republic’s Stephen Glass, the Boston Globe’s Patricia Smith, and Jay Forman in Slate as journalists who got caught embellishing, exaggerating, and outright lying in print. The will to fabricate cuts across disciplines, with academics and scientists inventing data, too. Last year, Emory University history professor Michael A. Bellesiles resigned following an investigation of charges that he concocted evidence to support his book Arming America, and Bell Labs fired researcher Jan Hendrik Schon when it discovered he made up scientific data and published it.
The unmasking of a counterfeiter tends to inspire busy discussions of his motive. In the case of Blair, who is black, observers such as Mickey Kaus speculate that affirmative action may have pushed Blair to a position of responsibility before he was ready for it. The busted fabricator almost always cites personal or emotional problems, and sure enough, Blair struck that note last week, telling the Associated Press, “I have been struggling with recurring personal issues, which have caused me great pain. I am now seeking appropriate counseling. …”
Those seeking to “understand” the liars’ behavior tend to blame the liars’ employers, making the liar the victim. The bosses pushed him too hard, or they took a young, promising journalist and threw him into the deep end—beyond his known abilities and experience—way before he was ready. Folks rush to swaddle the liar and his motives in psychobabble instead of placing the onus where it belongs.
No single explanation can cover every case, but my guess is that most liars make things up for the simple reason that they don’t have the talent or the ability to get the story any other way. According to the Washington City Paperaccount, Blair repeatedly concocted specifics, both sensational and mundane, while covering the D.C. sniper story. He didn’t really need to: Other Times reporters were on the story, too. My guess is that Blair made stuff up because he didn’t know how to wheedle gossip out of prosecutors and cops, he didn’t know how to put two and two together and make the next call to find news, and he didn’t know how to take notes and report the facts straight.
Jonathan Chait, who worked with Glass at the New Republic, remembers that Glass wasn’t really much of a stylist: Glass’ stories read beautifully because the late Michael Kelly poured his genius into them before publication. Kelly would often remark on reading a Glass first draft of how great the story was but that he needed more detail. As it turned out, Glass wasn’t much of a reporter, either. Instead of digging for more, he conjured the effects he thought Kelly wanted. A little closer to home, a similar thing happened at Slatewhen I edited Jay Forman’s monkeyfishing piece. When Forman, who did go monkeyfishing, turned in a first, flat draft about his Florida Keys adventure, I encouraged him through several rewrites to add more writerly detail to increase the piece’s verisimilitude. Forman complied, inventing numerous twists to the tale and even confessing intense remorse for things he never did. (Addendum:In February 2007, writer Jay Forman contacted Slate toconfess that his entire story was untrue. See this article.)
The lesson I learned isn’t to refrain from asking writers for detail but to be skeptical about details that sound too good or that you had to push too hard to get the writer to uncover or that are suspicious simply because any writer worth his salt would have put them in his first draft. All that said, it’s almost impossible for an editor to beat a good liar every time out.
Blair, like Glass, Cooke, Smith, and Forman, got away with making things up for as long as he did because journalism is built on trust. As New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines told the Washington Posttoday, “Frankly, no newspaper in the world is set up to monitor for cheats and fabricators.” When an editor gives somebody a notebook and pencil and tells him to go out and report, it’s a little bit like giving somebody you barely know a loaded gun. You expect him to use it wisely and honestly. But one slip, and there’s hamburger all over the wallpaper! Hence, most reporters don’t make things up because 1) they’re as ethical as Jesus Christ or 2) they know they’ll get caught.
The Blair revelations should distress everybody who creates or consumes copy. How many prevaricators lurk out there? But the wrong takeaway from the Blair-Cooke-Glass-Forman disasters is to assume that young people can’t be trusted to report. Instead (and how about this for drawing a happy face in a mound of manure?), their sordid experiences in the journalism trade indicate that so many young people get caught making stuff up because you can’t get away with it for very long. Journalism ain’t perfect, but it loves to eat its sinners.
Send your lies to firstname.lastname@example.org.