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The print media seems to be eating itself alive. In the drive for more sensationalism, more gripping headlines, more compelling stories, and most importantly more readership, editors are being effectively romanced by ambitious young writers seeking to make names for themselves — by stealing stories, plagiarizing their peers, and by fabricating entire events, people, and ideas.

The most spectacular such take is The New Republic’s Stephen Glass [1], which case blew up in 1998. As a 25-Year-Old rising star in the annals of journalism, he went from fabricating the occasional quote for far-flung articles to making up entire pieces using fictitious people, organizations, and events. He wrote stories to suit his ambition to be recognized as an emerging talent with an ability to uncover the wild, the eccentric, the incredible.

“Everything around him turned out to be incredibly vivid or zany or in some other way memorable,” said Leon Wieseltier, a co-worker at The New Republic, “and at the meetings, we used to wait for Steve’s turn, so that he could report on his next caper. We got really suckered.”

If it’s too good to be true, kids, it probably is. Steve Glass made cosmetic attempts to fool the magazine’s fact checkers and to his amazement they continually worked. As he got away with it more and more frequently, he began to push the envelope. As I saw on 60 Minutes [2] last weekend, he fabricated stories about Monica Lewinsky Condoms and an evangelical church that worshipped George W. Bush. Nobody caught on — perhaps because they didn’t want to?

Stephen Glass is apologetic and pathologically repentant for his actions, claims to have been in therapy, and.. oh — by the way? He’s just published a fictional novel based on his life story (he apparently still can’t grasp his own irony) called “The Fabulist” [5]. His undoing was a wholly fictitious piece about a 15-year-old hacker who worked his way into the systems of a fake company called “Jukt Micronics” and extorted the company for tens of thousands of dollars not to do it again. When Forbes Magazine [3] attempted to follow up on the piece, well, they couldn’t verify a single fact.

The penny dropped.

More recently we hear the tale of 27-year-old New York Times reporter Jayson Blair [4], recently outed and accused of the same thing, though he made very few attempts to conceal his fabrications to fact-checkers. When the story broke this past May that Blair had plagiarized huge tranches of a story from the San Antonio Express-News for a New York Times piece on Iraq war MIAs, the New York Times began a forensic bumfuzzling that revealed a long history of fabricated quotes, people, and events– along with other blatant examples of plagiarism — among Blair’s 700 articles, and published a 7200 word article accounting for these. The accounting took only a week to examine the previous 7 months (73 articles) for Blair’s inventiveness.

The question is… if you can check 73 articles in a week, why aren’t you checking the facts all along? I suspect that the answer is more nefarious than Publishers or Editors would like to admit. The reality is that, in competing more and more for their audience, newspapers and magazine have made bold attempts to become edgier, innovative, conniving. Woodward & Bernstein agonized for weeks as they waited for fact-checkers, researchers, editors, and lawyers to release their Watergate story once completed. The reality is that, nowadays, editors risk missing out on a story by waiting too long — there’s too much competition from realtime media like CNN, CNBC, and Internet publications to risk missing out on a big piece.

And as the drive to be different from the pack gets ever more compelling, what constitutes a “big piece” becomes a broader and broader topic for editors. The lesson, as always, is that we just can’t hold these institutions in such high esteem as we do. They’re fallible, because they’re human, and as money and power and competition and politics further intervene in the journalistic process they tend to become more fallible, more easily manipulated, and more inaccurate.

…and, apparently, they become platforms for young fiction authors seeking to make a name for themselves. Even in the college of writers, apparently, it doesn’t matter how you get famous. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie based on Jayson Blair..

-Ian.

[1] http://www.tnr.com/archive/0698/062998/ourreaders062998.html [2] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/05/07/60minutes/main552819.shtml [3] http://www.forbes.com/1998/05/11/otw3.html [4] http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/002/ 691dnacb.asp [5] http://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/columns/21note.html

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