Stretching the truth

Accounts of lies, plagiarism and fabrication put a glaring spotlight on the nation's press.

March 28, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IN LESS THAN a year, two major national newspapers have devoted pages of their main news sections to special reports-not on the war on terrorism or the war in Iraq or the presidential race - but on their own egregious mistakes.

In May, it was The New York Times, one of the country's most respected newspapers, explaining how reporter Jayson Blair had deceived readers. This month, it was USA Today, the nation's most widely circulated newspaper, explaining how foreign correspondent Jack Kelley invented stories from locales around the globe.

The USA Today revelation came as Blair was publicizing his book, Burning Down My Master's House, about how he fooled the Times and its readers. And it came on top of numerous reports of falsehoods, plagiarism and misrepresentations in newspapers across the land - Chicago, Macon, Ga., Orlando, Fla. It comes a few years after The New Republic magazine fired a young reporter, Stephen Glass, for fabricating stories.

"Until recently, I have been saying the questions of if there is a crisis in journalism are a little overblown, that what we have been doing is a much better job of catching cheaters," says Tom Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, College Park, which Blair and Kelley attended. "But now I'm beginning to think that there really is something more organic going on."

This new generation of cheaters is working in a changing profession as technology provides the increased pressure of a 24-hour news cycle and increased rewards of visibility and celebrity. Both might be to blame.

"In the kind of competitive pressure we are working in now, the pressure is on to gather a larger and larger audience, to compete with more and more niche competitors, many of whom dive straight to the bottom, whose values and standards are the lowest possible," says Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. "If the pressure is too strong and the character is too weak, you are going to have people do what Jack Kelley did."

Lee Wilkins, who teaches ethic courses at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, agrees. "I think we are all being driven, whether in print or broadcast, to make things more interesting, more lively, more vibrant," Wilkins says. "Any time you start piling on those kinds of adjectives, there is a lot of temptation to, as they say in the TV biz, sex it up. There are a lot of ways to do that and one of them is adding a lot of rich detail. The problem is you better be right. ...

"That's the kind of thing I see my students attempting to do, but they are doing it without a good grasp of how much research, how much work, has to go into getting that kind of detail. These are students with good moral compasses, but I see them making these artistic leaps that are fraught with chances to be wrong, to be spectacularly wrong."

Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, says correspondents like Kelley are especially tempted. "When you are out in the field as a foreign correspondent, dealing with an audience back home that doesn't know anything about the area, you are on your own pretty much in a very exotic setting, and a writing a story that is not about meat and potatoes, not about foreign policy, but about color and drama, you have a great opportunity for embellishing stories," Bagdikian says.

Technology makes stars

The new technology also means that what were once fairly anonymous ink-stained wretches can be blow-dried stars. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were instrumental in that change. All the President's Men, their 1975 book - and the subsequent movie - about their reporting of Watergate for The Washington Post, made journalists into celebrities.

Kovach, who was chief of Washington bureau of The New York Times and top editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, notes the change.

"A lot of people were attracted to journalism after that time, some for the wrong reason," he says. "They wanted it to be about them, not about journalism. They wanted to be some sort of celebrity."

Janet Cooke might have been the harbinger of today's troubles. She worked at Woodward and Bernstein's newspaper and confessed to making up "Jimmy's World," the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Her deed stunned the trade.

In the past two decades, celebrity opportunities available to journalists have increased exponentially.

"If you become a celebrity, all kinds of goodies go along with that - television, big lecture fees, a lot of gratification outside of your print reporting," says Bagdikian. "These rewards, monetary and egotistical, became rewards that went far beyond the traditional reward of being well thought of by your professional peers."

That increased visibility also reveals flaws which might have passed unnoticed in previous generations.

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