Famous Cases of Journalistic Fraud: A Reading List

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Washington Post Investigation of Janet Cooke’s Fabrications

Bill Green | Washington Post Ombudsman | April 19, 1981

In 1980, Janet Cooke made up a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict, won the Pulitzer Prize for it, then, two days later, gave it back. Here’s the internal investigation of how the Post leaned on her to get her to admit she faked it.

[Cooke’s] new resume claimed that she spoke or read French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Her original resume claimed only French and Spanish. The new form claimed she had won six awards from the Ohio Newspaper Women’s Association and another from the Ohio AP. […]

Janet was crying harder, and Bradlee began to check off her language proficiency. “Say two words to me in Portuguese,” he said. She said she couldn’t.

“Do you have any Italian?” Bradlee asked.

Cooke said no.

Bradlee, fluent in French, asked her questions in the language. Her answers were stumbling.

(The formatting is not that great, but if you save it in Instapaper and read it there, it’s easier to follow. Here’s a non-single-page link).

 

Scandal of Record

Seth Mnookin | Vanity Fair | December 2004

The harried days at the New York Times after the plagiarism accusations against Jayson Blair.

By this point, the reporting team was realizing the degree to which the increasingly dysfunctional culture of The New York Times had affected Blair’s career, especially in its latter stages. The Times—like every newspaper in the country—has always had its share of editors and reporters who feel disenfranchised or resentful. But under Howell Raines the frustration that normally simmered just below the surface seemed to explode. Desk editors weren’t speaking to one another. Reporters were almost at the point of open revolt. There was such fear of Raines’s temper and dismissive attitude that some editors said they kept to themselves concerns about shoddy stories or reporters.

 

The Making of Jayson Blair

David Folkenflik | Baltimore Sun | Feb. 29, 2004

Warning signs when Blair was an intern at the Boston Globe and editor of his college newspaper.

In one episode, no one at the Diamondback could reach Blair for three days. When he resurfaced, says Kristi E. Swartz, then a friend who was working on the Diamondback, Blair told several newspaper staffers that he had blacked out because of a gas leak at his room.

The story couldn’t have been true; his dormitory was not supplied with natural gas.

[…]

Alex Knott, the managing editor, accompanied Blair to a November 1996 football game at Byrd Stadium in search of students carrying banners critical of the football coach. When Blair’s story was published, Knott was astonished to read the colorful quotations attributed to the less-than-talkative students he had witnessed Blair interviewing. Blair insisted the article was accurate.

The same story had other problems. One quotation was discovered to have been lifted from an Associated Press article and was edited out before Blair’s story was published, says Todd B. Rhoads, then a sportswriter. Still another was attributed to a Maryland student named Eric Bouch, whose existence could not be confirmed by suspicious Diamondback staffers. No one with that name was registered as a student in 1996, according to the university.

 

Extra Blair:
• The 7,000 word New York Times internal investigation.
• The delightfully gossipy account of what it was like working for Blair at his college newspaper.
• Macarena Hernandez, a former colleague of Blair’s whose work he plagiarized, in the L.A. Times: “I resent that his crimes will now make suspects of journalists of color across the country. If the New York Times was sincerely committed to diversity, Blair’s editors would have chopped off his fingers at the first sign of trouble instead of helping him polish his claws.”
 

 

Shattered Glass

Buzz Bissinger | Vanity Fair | September 1998

The basis for the movie.

The conversation turned to Jukt Micronics, the company featured in “Hack Heaven.” Jukt, according to Glass’s account, had offered a teenage hacker named Ian Restil tens of thousands in cash and goods not to destroy its computer system.

“We still can’t get anything from Jukt,” said Foroohar. Jukt had been identified in the story as a big-time California software company. But Penenberg, after combing dozens of different databases as well as corporate records in an attempt to locate the company, could not find a single mention of it.

Glass didn’t flinch. “Did they call you back?” he asked.

“No.”

“Ever?”

Glass sounded surprised, as if there had been some breakdown in communication, and maybe there was. Realizing that Forbes Digital Tool was onto him, he had cast his younger brother, Michael, a senior studying psychology at Stanford and an accomplished actor in high school, in the role of a Jukt Micronics executive named George Sims.

 

Extra Stephen Glass:

Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work, one of Glass’s most infamous fictions. Come for the blatant made-upness, stay for the bonkers racism.

 

Who Knows Jack? 

Jill Rosen | American Journalism Review | April/May 2004   

Unlike Blair or Glass, Jack Kelley wasn’t a hungry upstart, he was a bona fide star. He had been at USA Today for more than 20 years, he was their go-to guy when they needed a big international feature. His stock in trade was first-person accounts of whizzing bullets, forgotten corners of the world, scoops from stolen documents and embedded sources. When you list all his adventures in a row, it’s incredible he got it away with it for so long.

In March 2000 Kelley travels to Cuba as the country and the United States brawl over rights to the 6-year-old Elián González, who floated into Florida waters on an inner tube. Kelley apparently gets invited to watch on the beach in predawn as a group of Cubans tries to escape their homeland on a small aluminum boat. The boat sinks in a storm, and Kelley is on the beach days later when the Cuban Coast Guard hauls in the survivors, who vividly tell Kelley how their boat mates perished.

In August 2001 Kelley is walking by a Sbarro pizza shop in Jerusalem at lunchtime with an Israeli official just as a suicide bomber blows it up. Kelley’s first-person account tells how he saw the bomber fight his way into the restaurant through the crowds, then of the burst of heat that accompanied the detonation, and how when three men “catapulted” out of the restaurant, their heads “separated from their bodies and roll[ed] down the street.”

A month after the Sbarro bomb, just before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Kelley is allowed along as Jewish West Bank settlers, with their wives and children, set out to kill “blood-sucking Arab” taxi passengers. Complaints from a settlers’ group that it never happened vanished in the shadow of 9/11.

“He gave them the ‘wow’ type of copy that everyone wanted,” a reporter says of Kelley. “Someone should have questioned why he came up with ‘wow’ copy all the time…. When something doesn’t seem right, it almost never is.”

(Here’s Part 2 and Part 3.)

 

The Problems of Jack Kelley and USA Today

Bill Hilliard | Bill Kovach | John Seigenthaler | April 12, 2004

All of these pieces argue that there is no “lone gunman” theory of journalistic malpractice. All of the high-profile fabricators took advantage of structural weaknesses (pre-internet fact checking) or workplace cultures (playing mentors off each other, falling through the cracks between departments) to go undetected, to do it again and again, to get cocky. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Kelley. The internal report on Kelley’s misdeeds and USA Today’s response reads like a negative review on GlassDoor.com:

Two reporters who thought Kelley’s sources were questionable insisted that their bylines be removed from a story on which they had worked. They did not want their names associated with his. One of them told us: “At any other newspaper when reporters ask to have their bylines taken off a story, editors would want to know, ‘why?’ The editor we talked to on this story raised not a ripple. Nobody pushed to find out why we didn’t trust him.”

“Three separate staff members who have worked at the paper for less than seven years recounted, in different ways, how other staff members alerted them in their early days with USA Today ‘to be skeptical of anything Kelley writes.’

[…] People in the newsroom who raised questions about Kelley say they were warned by peers “to just keep your heads down.” One reporter, whose instinctive reaction to a Kelley exclusive would have kept it out of the paper had she been an editor, described the reason she did not challenge it earlier: “The culture tells you every day that you give your superior whatever he or she wants in order to look good.” […] Some staff members called the News department “the House of Mean.”

 

Extra Kelley:

USA Today’s original public report of Kelly’s fabrications.
A PBS summary of the case.

 

Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions

Michael Moynihan | Tablet | July 30, 2012

Jonah Lehrer should have known better than to make up quotes by someone who has fans.

When I asked about aspects of his interactions with Rosen, Lehrer provided a sketchy time frame and contradictory specifics—he first told me that he had personally exchanged emails with Rosen, then attributed this supposed email exchange to his literary agent—then further claimed that Dylan’s management had approved the chapter after being sent a copy of Imagine. He added that Dylan’s management didn’t want their cooperation sourced in the book. But when I contacted Dylan’s management, they told me that they were unfamiliar with Lehrer, had never read his book, there was no bobdylan.com headquarters, and, to the best of their recollection, no one there had screened outtakes from No Direction Home for Lehrer. Confronted with this, Lehrer admitted that he had invented it.

Extra Lehrer:

Charles Seife’s investigation into Lehrer’s plagiarism at Wired.

 

More extras

Here’s Jack Shafer in Slate in 2002 with a case of an Associated Press fabricator, and a theory of why he went unnoticed for so long:

[Christopher Newton’s] gambit is maybe only as half as dishonorable for what passes for proper journalism. Every day, thousands of reporters pad their stories to fit the stock news formula. Like casting agents, they phone around looking for the precise quotation their story needs to appear “balanced.” They lead their witnesses with language such as, “So would you say …?” or asking the question five different ways until they get the right quotation to fit their predetermined thesis and complete the formula. If it’s a journalistic crime for Christopher Newton to invent characters who mouth empty but passable clichés, what’s the name of the offense when respectable reporters deliberately harvest the same worthless clichés from bona fide sources?

And Michael Kinsley doing a bit of a #slatepitch against corrections.

***

Photo: Scene from the film “Shattered Glass”

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