I don’t know exactly why it happened, but journalists are held in the same contempt as lawyers and used car salesmen. We’re branded as lying muckrakers, all thanks to a few dishonest reporters who decided it would be much easier to make up their stories, rather than tell the truth.
The latest fraud was 27-year-old Jayson Blair of the New York Times, who wrote numerous fake stories at the Times before finally being caught. He duped the editorial staff of what has been called one of the most powerful newspapers in the world.
For three or four years, he claimed he filed stories from distant locales when he was really in his apartment, created entire scenes and conversations that never occurred, and even used the Internet to steal quotes and stories from other newspapers around the country.
So now Blair joins the ranks of Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, Stephen Glass of the New Republic, and the Boston Globe’s Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith. And like most of these other liars, he’ll end up smelling like a rose when it’s all over.
Of course, Blair didn’t accept responsibility for his own actions. He told the Associated Press he was “struggling with recurring personal issues, which have caused me great pain. I am now seeking appropriate counseling.”
What kind of counseling do they have for pathological liars?
Blair: Hi, my name is Jayson, and I’m a liar.
Liars Anonymous: Hi Jayson.
Blair: I didn’t really write all those stories in the Times. I was too busy working as an undercover secret agent, spying on France.
Actually, Blair’s counseling was to check himself in at a $10,000 per week drug rehab clinic. According to a story in the New York Post, this was to overcome a cocaine habit, not to cure himself of habitually deceiving his employers. And he spent six whole days in the posh Silver Hill Clinic, in New Caanan, Connecticut.
So what should we believe? Whether he actually had a coke habit? That it was his coke habit, and not a major personality flaw, that made him a fraud? Or that he got all better after only six days?
What I’m more likely to believe is that — in the American tradition of rewarding stupidity and dishonesty — Blair will try to make money off his pack of lies. There is talk that Blair could receive a huge book deal, and have a made-for-TV movie produced about his shameless career. He may even be picked to star in Universal Picture’s “Big Fat Liar 2,” although I may have made that last one up.
Unfortunately, pulling the Blair skeleton out of the closet has pulled out a few others as well, and journalists all around the country are suffering for it. Last week, Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for The Times, was fired after a brief controversy over how he wrote his articles.
Bragg used the reporting and legwork of an uncredited freelancer named J. Wes Yoder to provide background for a story published in 2002. And while this practice may surprise many people, using “stringers” is very common in the literary and journalism arenas.
Do you actually think big-name reporters like Rick Bragg do all their own grunt work? Heck no, that’s what interns, research assistants, and new reporters are for. They gather research, do interviews, and even provide some of the writing.
Think of it this way: Steve Jobs does not build the computers at Apple, President Bush does not write his own speeches, and Kenneth Lay did not steal Enron’s money all by himself. Even Michelangelo had assistants who did a lot of his work for him.
Most big-time news organizations will give credit to the stringer’s contribution, but in this case, Bragg didn’t. So, The Times said Bragg had violated their policy of creating a minor problem while they were recovering from a major one, and suspended him for two weeks. But Bragg showed them: he quit. He’s got a $1 million book contract with Alfred A. Knopf, so he’ll do just fine.
However, The Times editors did admit they use stringers to beef up their reporters’ stories. “But as a general rule, nonstaffers only supplement our correspondents’ own basic reporting. They do not substitute for it,” they said in an email to Times staff. They then emailed copies of “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” to their friends without attaching Bruce Cameron’s name to it.
So now, thanks to loathsome frauds like Jayson Blair, journalists everywhere have a harder time being believed by their readers. And it’s not like we were at the top of anyone’s list of “Most Trustworthy People” to begin with. While Blair may think he pulled a fast one on The Times editorial staff, he’s only succeeded in hurting every other hard-working journalist in this country — people who work their entire life to be honest and ethical and are now tainted by Blair’s deceit.
And for that, I hope nobody gives him a dime for his story. Let him go work for the government instead. They could use a few more good liars.