When it comes to making up stories, parts of stories or sources in a story, typically the same names usually surface: Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Patricia Smith and Janet Cooke. I was just getting my journalistic footing when these scribes were revealed to be little more than con artists, and so their names always served to be looming warning signs of what NOT to do in the business.
Too bad, it seems, that they don’t continue to serve as poster children for journalists behaving badly. From the New Yorker’s Jonah Lehr to former New Canaan News reporter Paresh Jha and Wall Street Journal intern Liane Membis who all created sources and quotes out of thin air, it seems that this summer has been filled with headlines about journalists contributing to the continued erosion of trust in our profession.
I don’t know if it was because my mentor professor Conrad Fink, who passed away earlier this year, put the fear of God in his students when he preached about there being no shortcuts, but it seems younger journalists — in higher profile positions — never heard such lectures. I do know that I’ve been questioning what’s happening in the trade, overall, that makes exchanging integrity for short-term gratification so commonplace these days.
Do the guilty parties grapple with the decision to make up a name, a quote, an entire story? Are their stomachs tied in knots about the prospect of being caught? Can they sleep at night? And if so, do they have nightmares about their ethical transgressions? Do they feel dirty when they walk through the doors of respective employers after committing such major lapses in judgement? And finally, is there redemption following such public failures?
I just learned Jayson Blair, who plagiarized and made up sources and quotes while at The New York Times, now earns about $130/hour as a life coach and Stephen Glass, one of the most sought after reporters who made up sources, quotes and whole stories at The New Republic, is now a lawyer in California. Maybe some of these folks can be redeemed.
I don’t know the answers to the other questions.
The American Journalism Review has a piece posted this week that states we can thank Blair and Glass for blaming younger journalists not ready for the big leagues, but the recent round of cheating shows that it’s not just young folks. The recent crop of journalism fabricators includes “a wide array of culprits, from veterans and stars of the profession to those who claimed they weren’t really journalists,” writes Lori Robertson who used to be a managing editor of the magazine and now contributes regularly to it.
Robertson suggests that the journalism culture itself is to blame for its recent series of scandals, namely the pressure to produce more while still beating the competition.
“Newsrooms praise those who get the stuff nobody else gets,” Robertson writes. She quotes Bill Kovach, founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, who states that as long as news organizations prioritize beating the competition above integrity, the cheating will keep happening.
Twenty-four hour newsrooms that continue to downsize are also part of the problem, said Robertson. “The more pressure that is put on journalists to produce more, faster, quicker, cheaper, the more the industry encourages cutting corners, which is just another way of saying cheating,” according to Deni Elliott, who teaches media ethics at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg and is quoted in Robertson’s piece.
Being first and getting stories nobody else gets may be factors, but I’d like to add one more: The star system.
Almost every newsroom has one. It’s that group of people in every newsroom that is designated the in-crowd, the journalists who are highly favored by certain key editors, who are placed on pedestals, given plumb assignments and lots of leeway. They are the guys and girls who, for lack of a better term, are considered prizes for different reasons — maybe they have the right pedigree or know how to talk the right game. Most of the time they are good at delivering the news of the day and good at selling themselves. Ever once in a while they come up with original ideas, or what editors believe to be original. They hang out with or know ‘the right kind of people,’ go to the right parties, live in the right neighborhoods. They have a certain look, most often pretty and petite with nice smiles, or wonky and cute as The New York Times describes Lehr. “… a guy who looks cute and wonky is better positioned to get away with this than others,” Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia told the Times.
A Yale graduate (Membis) lands at The Wall Street Journal. And by the way, she’s also a beauty queen. Well, she was. Even the best editors couldn’t help being star struck, right? I recently asked a journalist about working for a leading Washington, D.C. publication. That journalist talked candidly about the star system in place there, and how difficult it is to break through and become a member of the newsroom’s ‘elite.’
I think there’s a lot of pressure on these people, these stars, to live up to their own hype, and that is why they lie.
Sometimes stars fade. Other times they crash and burn, hurting their publications, the industry as a whole and, most importantly, themselves. And yes, this keeps happening over and over again. This summer has been no exception.