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When a Journalist Lies, Should It Be Forgiven?

Ethics: No little white lie here. Newsweek writer Joe Klein told a whopper when he stiffly denied having penned 'Primary Colors.' And his peers are not amused.

July 22, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Say it isn't so, Joe.

Say you didn't fib, big time, when you insisted, "For God's sake, definitely I didn't write it." Say you didn't bend the truth--on the CBS evening news, no less; your own network, no less--when you declared, "It's not me. I didn't do it." Say you didn't, as your Newsweek magazine colleague Jonathan Alter put it, "flat-out lie, on many, many occasions" by denying, repeatedly, that you were the novelist known as Anonymous, author of this political season's gigantic bestseller "Primary Colors."

Alas, after disclosing last week that "I wrote 'Primary Colors,' " Newsweek columnist and CBS commentator Joe Klein is in no position to deny his connection to a campaign year morality play that at once illustrates the complicated dimensions of lying and raises questions of profit, betrayal, friendship, and guilt-by-professional association.

Jealous envy no doubt figured in the swift vilification of Klein by many of his peers in journalism; "Primary Colors" got largely great reviews and, at last report, Anonymous had reaped about $6 million from his fiction. But University of Virginia psychologist Bella DePaulo, who specializes in studying lies and lying, said the feelings of perfidy had other origins as well.

DePaulo makes a distinction between "little" lies most people tell to strangers, or to people who hardly matter to them, and the big whoppers they save for those they care about most. Little lies slip out easily: "You look great!" to someone who resembles deathon a holiday; or "My goodness, what a beautiful baby," to parents whose child was clearly abandoned by aliens.

The big lies are the tough ones. Adultery, for example: a lie from the moment it is contemplated. These serious lies are the ones we reserve for those who matter to us. This category of course includes family and extended family, including peers and professional associates. "It's like we save our most devastating stuff for the people closest to us," DePaulo observed.

Engaging in a months-long string of prevarication to fellow journalists threw Klein into the category of more serious lies, DePaulo contended. "They may not have been his intimates," she said. "But they were people who mattered to him."

The murky matter of whether Klein really was Anonymous was made cloudier still by the materialistic, self-promotional elements of the mistruth, DePaulo maintained. For Klein, marketing himself as Anonymous turned out to be a brilliant strategy. The guessing game helped fuel sales, and for the author it provided an amusing challenge.

"But most lies are actually not for these obvious materialistic goals," DePaulo pointed out. Generally, she said, lying is a way to build esteem or to bolster affection--the currency, as DePaulo put it, of everyday living. "The way I like to think of it is that lies are like wishes," she said. "You can't fix whatever it is easily. And so you lie."

In the case of Anonymous, that may be exactly what transpired, said Columbia Journalism Review Editor Suzanne Braun Levine. It's easy to understand how Klein might have balked at attaching his own name to the project, Levine said. The novel about the 1992 presidential campaign is so thinly veiled it is practically transparent.

Writing fiction about what he was covering as a journalist was Klein's first slip on the veracity scale, Levine said: "in effect lying about what he was doing in one form or the other, because fiction is non-truth," she explained. But the big turning point came "at the point when he looked his colleagues and his readers in the eye and told them a lie," that he was not Anonymous.

Journalism is a singularly un-policed profession, Levine conceded. You can't have your reporting license taken away, because there is no reporting license. In a profession that purports, anyway, to trade in the truth, peer opprobrium and compromised credibility generally are substantial sanctions on their own merits. But in this case, Levine feels sterner measures are in order.

She harked back to a case several presidential campaign seasons ago when a well-known New York television anchorman, Chuck Scarborough, confessed to having made generous contributions to the campaign coffers of several conservative candidates. That reporter's employers loudly chastised him and immediately barred him from further coverage of politics that season.

"I think as valuable a commodity as Joe [Klein] is to his employers, I guess I think he ought to sit this one out," Levine said.

Alter, who in a February issue of Newsweek speculated about the identity of Anonymous without mentioning Klein, was less willing to hang his comrade out to dry. "I think with his usual hard work and a little remorse he can work his way back," Alter said of Klein. "I don't favor the death penalty for this."

Alter said he was willing also to forgive Klein for succumbing to the petty evasions "which are part of life." Hedging, refusing to comment, dodging a verbal blow goes with the turf of journalism, Alter said.

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