Catch Them If You Can
Why would someone who obviously has enough talent to be hired by a venerable institution feel the need to ruin themselves, and more importantly, shame the institution with which they are affiliated?
So it was with great shock and dismay that years later, in May 1998, I learned that a young New Republic writer, Stephen Glass, had been fired for fabricating a slew of stories (not only for New Republic, but a few other magazines for which he free-lanced). Glass, described as affable and eager-to-please, had started an avalanche of lies that had all been published in the magazine. Somehow, the soft-spoken young reporter had managed to fool his colleagues into buying every line he had to offer. Finally caught by then editor Chuck Lane, Glass was fired and set The New Republic on the difficult course of having to explain to its readers the question of how and why this happened.
The question of "how" is probably easier to answer: There is an unspoken trust between an editor and his writer, and it's a given that a writer or reporter will report the truth. (But as Glass, and more recently the New York Times' Jayson Blair, have proven, there is no longer a guarantee of truth.) One can question why The New Republic fact-checkers (Glass was, interestingly, a fact-checker) didn't probe deeper into his stories. According to a 1998 Columbia Journalism Review article, editor Chuck Lane explained that when Glass was questioned about his sources, he would "provide forged faxes on fake letterheads of phony organizations, as well as fictitious notes, even voice mail or actual calls from people pretending to be sources." Though we can still argue that in many institutions, the fact-checker's rule of thumb is: it's only a fact if it's verified by three sources, it's impossible to question fake voice mails and phone messages. Why on earth would you doubt them? Interestingly, as Michael Kinsley wrote in Slate back when the Glass story broke:
More important and funnier is what fact-checkers spend much of their time doing, which is looking for facts in newspapers . . . Newspapers do not have fact-checkers! No, not even the New York Times. Yet a fact confirmed in the New York Times is considered checked. And rightly so, since the New York Times is generally quite accurate.
No longer. The more puzzling question, though, is "why"? Why would someone who obviously has enough talent to be hired by a venerable institution feel the need to ruin themselves, and more importantly, shame the institution with which they are affiliated? Destroy yourself if you wish, but why harm the innocent?
The recent Jayson Blair fiasco at the New York Times bears similarities to the Glass story: another young favored reporter who was promoted through the ranks (even against the advice of a few of his editors), who then plagiarized and fabricated stories. Many have argued that the African-American Blair benefited from affirmative action policies; others blame his messy personal problems, riddled with drug and alcohol use, and need for extensive therapy. Still others have pinpointed the pressure placed on young reporters who feel the need the excel: a sort of "survival of the fittest" theory; and insiders have explained Blair's chumminess with a few top-level editors who sensed a star potential and began to tailor his success. As CNN reported, the 27-year-old Blair also "faked stories and quotes, plagiarized other publications and filled expense reports to make it appear he was traveling on assignment when he was actually at his home in Brooklyn." After his firing, Blair then went on an interview blaze, talking to every publication that was interested in hearing his side. He even expressed anger as to why he had not been paralleled to Stephen Glass who had been described as a "genius" and "whiz kid" for his wily ways. Strange.
Inevitably inspired by Glass who went on to finish law school, write a recently published book, The Fabulist (an autobiographical book, which according to Newsweek, Glass regards as "an apology"), and enjoy a 60 Minutes profile, Blair began scouring the book publishing market to sell his story and find other ways of self-promotion as the New York Times reeled from the damage which Blair had wrought. Editor Howell Raines and his deputy quit, after angry staffers demanded explanations as to how this was allowed to happen at the world's most important newspaper. Indeed, Blair simultaneously destroyed his own career and those of the editors who had championed his cause.
The real answers probably elude even Glass, Blair, and every other forger, "fabulist", and con artist who embarks on these episodes. Prior to Glass and Blair, there was the Washington Post's Janet Cook, whose fabricated article about an eight-year-old heroin addict won her a Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer was rescinded after Cook admitted to faking the story. The puzzling thing is that such behavior appears to be an unconscious effort to hurt others. Wreak havoc on yourselves, but why do you allow such fabrications to cross over into your profession and to others? Perhaps, it's simply arrogance, and the bizarre miscalculation that you can get away unscathed with saying anything you damn well please. Sorry, think again.
Given my profession, I have over the years met several journalists, many of whom I disrespect and dislike. This is a sentiment echoed by a few friends, also active in the profession, who agree that the biggest obstacle facing many journalists is an arrogance and an annoying "above it all" attitude that makes them suffer from the delusion that they can do and say anything. Wrong.
The con artist has always held a particular appeal in American culture. Hoax connoisseurs and tricksters who somehow dodge the system are always regarded with a dash of awe and perhaps even sympathy. The recent film, Catch Me If You Can, which relates the true story of charming conman Frank Abagnale, Jr. (brilliantly portrayed by the dashing Leonardo DiCaprio), exemplifies this best. Here's a guy who posed as a doctor, lawyer, and Pan Am pilot, and milked the system for millions of dollars before finally getting caught. Yet we find ourselves rooting for him, and hoping that he would succeed in his escapades. Go figure.
But does the sentiment and sympathy always hold true? Is the public always willing to forgive and forget? Americans seem to have a short attention span particularly in recent years especially when it comes to their so-called villains. Abagnale went on to work for the FBI (as a condition of his sentence), assisting them in their check fraud department. He has now written a book (on which the film is based), and is basking in newfound fame. Glass embarked on a mission of soul-searching and expressing remorse for what he had done, finished law school, published his book, and is currently at work on a second. A film, Shattered Glass, based on his life is scheduled for release in October. Blair has been tapped by both Esquire and Jane magazines for writing assignments. Have these conmen managed to redeem themselves? Perhaps, but only ever so slightly. The damage and self-destruction they have wreaked could also prove everlasting, as it did with the Washington Post's Cook, who simply disappeared from the radar screen.
In a recent Newsweek article, current New Republic editor, Peter Beinart, had this to say about Glass: "I think Steve is the clearly the same person . . . which is to say he's very smart and completely repulsive." No doubt the same sentiment holds true for Blair and every other present and future "fabulists" that attempt to get away with falsehoods. Despite the awe, infamy, and perverse glory attached to their deeds, nothing is worth the inevitable disgust which so many convey as a result. This world has a cautionary warning to offer: Watch what you say, or you will be destroyed.