We write often on this web site about the con-artists who dominate our government: Liars who treat truth as a disposable commodity easily discarded when it gets in the way of personal and political agendas.
I wish I could say my own profession of journalism is free of liars, cheats and scoundrels. Unfortunately, it is not. Journalism attracts the glib, the fast-talkers and those who practice the art of the con.
In 1971, writer Clifford Irving conned book publisher McGraw-Hill into an advance to write an “authorized” biography of billionaire Howard Hughes. Irving said Hughes, a recluse then living in the Bahamas, commissioned him to write the biography and produced notes and stories of “inside” information he said came directly from Hughes.
Irving gambled Hughes, rumored to be sick and near death, would not come forward to repudiate the book. The billionaire had not spoken publicly since 1958. Irving miscalculated. Hughes spoke to reporters and those he knew in a conference call and said he never met Irving and did not hire him to write a book. Irving went to jail for fraud but later wrote a moderately successful book detailing how he almost pulled off the hoax.
In 1980, the mighty Washington Post considered young writer Janet Cooke one of their up-and-coming stars. The attractive, outgoing black woman charmed the editors of the Post and even legendary executive editor Ben Bradlee who called her “the future of the Post.” On September 29, 1980 the Post published “Jimmy’s World,” a harrowing account by Cooke of an eight-year-old heroin addict from Washington’s crime-ridden southeast.
The story won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and the publicity from that award caused a representative from one of the colleges listed in Cooke’s biography to call and say she was not a graduate of their institution. An internal investigation revealed Cooke not only fabricated her resume but also the entire “Jimmy’s World” article. The Post fired Cooke, returned the Pulitzer and published more than one apology to its readers.
Stephan Glass wrote for The New Republic, the small but respected journal of opinion and politics often called “The in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” His stories detailed hard-drinking, prostitute-chasing young Republicans at a neo-con convention in Washington, the bonanza of Monica Lewsinsky-related souvenir items and pre-pubescent hackers with agents and million dollar contracts.
The young writer, not yet 30, freelanced for Rolling Stone, George and Harpers and pulled in a six-figure income. One staff member at The New Republic said editors at the magazine heaped praise on Glass and called him “too good to be true.”
He was. After a writer at Forbes Digital Tool found numerous errors and fabrications in a Glass story about hackers, New Republic Editor Chuck Lane confronted Glass, who maintained his story was true, then claimed he had been duped by sources, and finally admitted he made the whole thing up. An investigation by TNR revealed that Glass fabricated all or some of most of the stories he wrote for the magazine as well as other publications.
Glass enlisted friends and gave them cell phones so they could pose as sources and fool the fact checkers. In an apology to its readers, TNR said Glass fooled them in part because they “found him entertaining.”
The fired and disgraced writer obtained a six-figure advance to write a book, The Fabulist, about a writer who makes up stories. He also graduated from Georgetown Law School and clerked for a prominent Washington judge.
During Jayson Blair’s four-year career at The New York Times, the 27-year-old writer covered major news stories ranging from the D.C. sniper case to families devastated by the Iraq war. His colorful reporting included detailed descriptions of locations, people and events – all fiction. Blair, sitting in his apartment in New York City, claimed to be all these places but never traveled there. He fabricated more than 70 stories for the newspaper that claimed to publish “all the news that’s fit to print.”
“Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception, ” read the headline in the Times on a Sunday morning in May 2003. The nearly 15,000-word story detailed how Blair lied to editors, fooled fact checkers and played the Times as a sucker. The paper fired Blair and he, like Glass, landed a six-figure book deal for a book on how he did it. The book bombed.
Three years later, journalism finds itself in another uproar over apparent fabrications by a writer. This one has yet to reach the notoriety of a Janet Cook, Stephan Glass or Jayson Blair – but it might. Often-discredited writer Jason Leopold, on May 13, wrote a story for the left-leaning news/blog site Truthout, claiming the grand jury investigating the leak of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name to the media indicted Karl Rove and the White House aide had 24 hours to get his affairs in order.
The story, rich in details about a day-long conference at the offices of Rove’s attorneys, told a fascinating tale. In the month that has followed, no other news organization picked up the story, no indictment emerged on Rove and his attorneys claim they got a notice from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald saying he would not be indicted.
Truthout has stuck stubbornly to its story, claiming – in part – that it may have been used, a defense that has a Stephan Glassian ring to it.
Leopold could be called the poster child for second, third and even fourth chances. A reporter for the respected Dow Jones News Service, his editors removed Leopold from covering the Enron scandal and later fired him amid claims that some of his stories didn’t check out. He landed at Salon as a freelancer but Salon had to remove a story from its site (again, about Enron) and dismiss Leopold, saying editors could not verify a source for that story and also saying the writer lifted material from the Financial Times.
He drifted down the journalistic food chain to Raw Story, a “progressive” alternative news site that primarily recycles stories from other publications and uses “frames” to link to other sites (a practice which itself raises ethical questions) but left there due to “economic circumstances.”
Leopold emerged next at Truthout where he recycled much of what he had written about Enron before and began writing about the Plame grand jury investigation, first predicting and then claiming an indictment against Rove, a story that appears to be yet another fabrication. In a book, Leopold admits a past of drug abuse, theft, lying to editors and unethical behavior to obtain information.
To be fair, Capitol Hill Blue is sometimes accused of fabricating stories. Two years ago, we published stories that detailed temper tantrums by President George W. Bush. Critics claimed we made the stories up because no one else picked up the reports. Late last year, however, Newsweek, Time and others wrote about the President’s inability to control his temper and confirmed much of what we wrote two years earlier. A book by respected George Washington University psychiatrist Justin Frank also confirmed our reports of the President’s suspected problems with mental stability.
In 2004, we reported on increased domestic spying by the government, including the Defense Department and the National Security Agency. Again, critics called the stories bogus. A year later, details of the NSA spying program emerged.
But we have published stories that either proved to be wrong or could never be verified. I was burned by a source on what we thought was a major story about whether or not Bush knew intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was false. The source lied to me and used a fake name. I issued a public apology and pulled the story from our database. It happened again in 2004 when we wrote Nancy Reagan had refused to back Bush’s re-election effort. She came out publicly and said we were wrong. We retracted the story and apologized to our readers.
Earlier this year, we published a report that said a Secret Service report said Vice President Dick Cheney was drunk when he shot a lawyer friend on a hunting trip in Texas. A follow-up investigation convinced us no such report existed. We removed the story from our archives and apologized for it. I’m also a recovering alcoholic who must live with the fact that I did some incredibly stupid, unethical, immoral and illegal things when I drank.
Time may yet prove Jason Leopold and Truthout right in their claim of an indictment against Karl Rove but the odds, and Leopold’s checkered past weigh in against them. Rove’s spokesmen and attorneys have issued denials. Many other news sources report Rove was not, and will not, be indicted.
Some of those news organizations, like The Washington Post and New York Times, have learned painful lessons about the dangers of depending on a reporter’s integrity. Truthout, unless it knew all along that the story was bogus, may learn the same lesson.
In the end all any of us have is the truth and we, as journalists, have an obligation to report it. When we screw the truth and it bites back we must swallow the bitter pill of humility and admit we messed up. Truth demands no less.