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Is there really no defense against lying journalists?

May 18, 2003|DAVID SHAW

It is, alas, a familiar story.

In 1981, the Washington Post was forced to return a Pulitzer Prize after it was disclosed that its winning entry -- reporter Janet Cooke's heart-wrenching story about Jimmy, an 8-year-old heroin addict -- was entirely fictitious. I can still remember Ben Bradlee, the Post's executive editor, telling me, "If a reporter is determined to willfully deceive you, you're going to be deceived."

In 1998, the New Republic fired writer Stephen Glass after learning that he had invented people, organizations, quotations, places, events, even whole stories. Charles Lane, then the executive editor of the magazine, says, "The only thing I think you can say in defense of the New Republic was that we were up against somebody ... who was really determined to deceive the magazine."

Last Sunday, as everyone not consigned to the "Matrix" underground city of Zion must know, the New York Times published a remarkable, Page 1 account of how reporter Jayson Blair had repeatedly written (and the paper had printed) stories full of what it called "widespread fabrication and plagiarism." Howell Raines, the executive editor of the Times, said, "This system is not set up to catch someone who sets out to lie and to use every means at his or her disposal to put false information into the paper."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Fired reporter -- The Media Matters column in Sunday's Calendar describes Christopher Newton, an Associated Press reporter who was dismissed last year, as white. He is black.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 25, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Fired reporter -- The Media Matters column in last Sunday's Calendar section describes Christopher Newton, an Associated Press reporter who was dismissed last year, as white. He is black.

So, Bradlee, Lane and Raines agree: Skillful liars can beat experienced editors every time.

Sorry, I don't buy it.

Yes, liars can be hard to catch. And yes, newspapers are built on trust -- trust among reporters, trust between reporter and editor, trust between reader and newspaper. But to throw up your hands and say "gee, sorry, there's nothing we can do to stop a good liar" both undermines the reader's trust and encourages more liars. After all, Stephen Glass wound up with a spot on "60 Minutes" and a six-figure book advance for a fictional account of his journalistic travails. Who knows what riches ultimately await Jayson Blair in a society where no bad deed goes unrewarded?

I don't mean to suggest that editors at the Post, the New Republic and the New York Times have done nothing to prevent a recurrence of their reporters' betrayals. Raines, for example, has appointed a committee to examine what happened and how it can be avoided in the future, and he, publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. and managing editor Gerald Boyd met for two hours Wednesday with the Times staff in a movie theater near Times Square to answer often-angry questions about the Blair affair. But to start from the premise that determined liars hold all the aces is to invite failure.

Some warning signs

In each of these three cases, there were early warning signs for anyone who cared to look at them.

These three reporters were all young -- Cooke 26, Glass 25, Blair 27. They were all ambitious. And they were all thrust into the high-pressure, high-visibility vortex of the New York-Washington communications maelstrom.

In this buzz-and-bucks era of journalistic celebrityhood, the yearning to make a mark quickly, to be talked about, to get that book contract, that TV gig, can be an invidious influence on even the most thoroughly grounded young reporter. That alone should make editors monitor their young stars more carefully and be alert to the first indications that they might not be all they seem.

Cooke lied on her job application. And she based her Jimmy story on unnamed sources. Post editors didn't question the former, didn't press her on the latter, and stubbornly defended her despite critical questions from their own colleagues and local authorities after the story was published.

With Glass, as Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, said on "60 Minutes," "Everything around him turned out to be incredibly vivid or zany or in some way memorable." In other words, as Steve Kroft, the "60 Minutes" correspondent, so aptly put it, "He had an uncanny knack for stumbling onto people and stories that seemed too good to be true."

Hadn't editors at the New Republic ever heard the adage "If it's too good to be true, it probably is"?

Blair's transgressions were the most transparent.

* The paper published so many corrections of errors in his stories that Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, sent an e-mail to newsroom administrators a year ago saying, "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."

* Six months later, covering the Washington, D.C., sniper case, Blair got scoops that no other reporters got and that authorities immediately challenged, in part because they relied wholly on unnamed sources.

* According to last Sunday's New York Times story, national editors decided last year that Blair was "a sloppy writer ... often difficult to track down and at times even elusive about his whereabouts."

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