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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Scandal Unmasks Fiction, and the Truth Is Scary

June 14, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

A guy from a Midwest city sat with the rest of us in 1990 in Italy at the World Cup soccer tournament, usually at our media headquarters in Florence.

We seldom saw him at the actual matches, as we bounced around like soccer balls from Naples to Turin to Genoa to Bologna to cover the games.

But we would see him pounding away at his laptop, filing daily correspondence for his newspaper.

He was a funny character, clever and colorful, who wrote "slice of life" vignettes, essays about his Italy adventures that had little or nothing to do with the World Cup itself.

And because he was a top columnist for his paper, his editors not only published them, prominently, often on Page 1 of the paper, but bragged about them to everyone at the office, citing their wildly unconventional nature.

For while others of us were knocking ourselves out, thousands of miles from home, reporting on the games, this guy was having Hunter S. Thompson-like experiences all over Italy, meeting unusual people and describing unusual scenes.

He traveled alone. He spoke no Italian, but regaled us (and his readers) with tales of the fascinating people he met and the wonderful stories they told.

His editors ate it up. So did we. The guy was a born storyteller.

Only one catch:

We didn't believe a word of it.

*

I think of this fellow now--he's no longer alive--because a very respectable national magazine suddenly finds itself with a very embarrassing situation on its hands.

It appears that a top writer has been supplying this magazine with some excellent fiction.

Unfortunately, it is a nonfiction magazine.

A guy named Stephen Glass has been fired for fabricating material in no fewer than 23 articles that appeared in the New Republic, a political journal based in Washington.

It could be the greatest print scandal since author Clifford Irving and journalist Janet Cooke made up details out of whole cloth and passed them off as truth.

What is truly scary is that Glass' articles in various publications have had to do with people in political circles as prominent as President Clinton and his friend Vernon Jordan.

According to reports, Glass, 25, manufactured sources faster than a chicken manufactures eggs.

He did have a heck of an imagination, as writers often do. I particularly like a "former California police officer" he came up with, name of "Donny Tye."

This guy didn't just invent John Does, did he?

Donny Tye. I mean, which editor in the world would doubt a source identified as Donny Tye?

I am sure the New Republic's editors must be kicking themselves now. But when a top correspondent identifies a "former California police officer" by name--and what a name--I don't suppose many would have (or find) the time to find proof that there's some guy named Donny Tye out there who spoke to their writer.

The magazine's editors are duly embarrassed and have offered a public apology. Peers at other magazines, including George and Rolling Stone, have also run pieces by Glass, and now are equally jumpy.

I just hope that John F. Kennedy Jr. doesn't find any articles in his magazine George that quote former Rep. Donny F. Tye, or that Rolling Stone finds no articles that mention "former California rock star" Donny Tye and his band, the Donettes.

The fact is, people make up stories, and other people lack the time or means to check all of them out.

So, they swallow them whole.

*

I remember in 1990 going off to do a story about a team from Cameroon that had become the toast of the World Cup.

I took a taxi to the Florence train depot, rode to Rome, took a taxi to the Rome airport, flew to Brindisi, rented a car, drove to Bari and got directions to a hamlet in the hills.

At the exact minute I arrived, Cameroon's players were leaving for a nighttime practice at a local school field. I asked to come along. They said yes, and later I wrote about my entertaining evening in the middle of nowhere with an African soccer team that spoke mainly French.

Did I make it up? No, but maybe I could have.

Instead, I had considerable anxiety that that other guy in Italy would win a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for his far more colorful journalism. If so, I would have won a 1991 Pulitzer, for investigating HIM.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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