26.3.2012news

Prose and Cons

Revisiting the misdeeds of journalists in the wake of Mike Daisey.

Mike Daisey recently found himself the latest in a long line of journalists facing scorn for plagiarising or fabricating parts of their reporting, leading This American Life to air a retraction of an episode where Daisey told his story.

Mike Daisey’s problems began, as they usually do in these cases, with details that didn’t ring true to those more knowledgable. Rob Schmitz’s suspicions led him to Daisey’s translator in China, whose memory of the trip had significant deviations from Daisey’s. Missing were the N-hexane poison victims, the underage workers, guards with guns, and various other elements.

This American Life's retraction episode revealed the depths of Daisey’s deception with more clarity. Daisey was audibly cowed by the revelation of his deceit, but stood convincingly by his conviction that he did it for theater. His mistake, he claimed, was allowing TAL to air it as journalism. The transcript of Daisey’s original episode on TAL is still online, but by now the details hardly matter, as Daisey continues to claim exemption from journalistic integrity in pursuit of exposing a story. A string of journalists and media commentators have contributed to the discussion, and the picture they paint is one of near universal distrust. The problem for Daisey is that his story hadn’t actually done a great deal to focus attention on the Foxconn workers. His show has been a critical success, but most of the discussion cites The New York Times's investigation led by Charles Duhigg (who Ira Glass spoke to on TAL’s retraction episode).

Daisey is only the most recent, and surely not the last, victim of being caught lying. Behind him lie the remains of many journalists’ careers. Here, a look at some of the most high profile public perjurers.

Jayson Blair

In The New York Times's own words, the Jayson Blair affair was “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.” Blair joined the NYT as an intern in 1998 but needed to graduate before accepting an extended position. He returned in 1999 and eventually became an “intermediate reporter,” while everybody assumed he had graduated. Which he had not. Between then and 2003, Blair plagiarised and lied in a series of New York Times articles, a scandal so big that, when it all unraveled, The Times published a 7,300 word frontpage story about it.

Although the feature focuses mainly on interactions at The Times, there is also the suggestion that the scandal could have been averted had his journalism school, the University of Maryland, been more vigilant in recognizing problems waiting to happen. Maryland staff have largely rejected that claim, but an investigation by David Folkenflik in the Baltimore Sun found a history of erratic behaviour and skirting the rules.

Judith Miller

“It was precisely her unpleasant aggressiveness that helped force the story—the marriage of WMD and global jihadists—closer to the top of the agenda.”

After Blair, The Times had Judith Miller to contend with. In the run up to the Iraq War, Miller provided the paper with numerous scoops about Saddam Hussein’s capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, mostly sourced from Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi politician, almost all of which have proven to be inaccurate. Franklin Foer’s profile of Miller for New York Magazine tells the story at length, starting with Miller’s fearsome reputation in the newsroom.

Janet Cooke

In 1981, Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her article in the Washington Post, a profile of an 8-year old heroin addict. Even then, there were doubts about the story, but it was submitted anyway. Two days after the prize was awarded, the Post admitted the story was false and Cooke had to return the prize. The paper’s ombudsman at the time, David Maraniss, published a full account of how the story made it to print in the paper shortly after.

Stephen Glass

"He is the perfect expression of his time and place: an era is cresting in Washington; it is a time when fact and fiction are blurred not only by writers eager to score but also by presidents and their attorneys, spinmeisters and special prosecutors. From one perspective, Stephen Glass was a master parodist of his city’s shifting truths."

Stephen Glass started at The New Republic in 1995 as an editorial assistant and was writing feature articles as the associate editor by 1998. During those three years, he fabricated sources, quotes, and even entire events. Loyalty from the TNR staff helped him get away with it for longer than he might have, but constant rebuttals from the sources of his articles reduced his credibility as far as it could go. Glass’s jig was brought to an end when a reporter wondering how he got scooped by Glass revealed problems with one of Glass’s stories. From there, Glass’s story unravelled like string.In one of his best pieces, Buzz Bissinger retraces the Stephen Glass affair for Vanity Fair (it was also adapted for a film), weaving original research into a gripping narrative.

Stephen Glass has come back to the public eye recently: he wants to practice law, and the California Committee of Bar Examiners would rather he didn’t. Jack Shafer, writing for Reuters in December, outlined Glass’s battle to get accepted on the bar. Glass passed the bar exam in New York in 2000, but was told by the bar that he’d probably not be approved on character grounds. So he tried again in California, successfully passing the bar exam there in 2007. Glass has been battling the California committee ever since. Glass appealed the decision, which was then overturned in 2010, only for the committee to appeal the decision, which was overturned again. Again, the committee appealed, this time to the California Supreme Court. The details, drawn mostly from court documents, are slightly murky and very fascinating.

Jack Kelley

Jack Kelley was something of a legend at USA Today. He’d been with the paper 10 years and had filed over 700 stories from all over the globe. But after vetting his output, a team assigned to the matter at USA Today found “sweeping and substantial” inconsistencies.

On the same day USA Today revealed its findings, Jill Rosen painted a fuller picture of the deception in the American Journalism Review, finding a man who many thought they knew well, “the last person they’d suspect in a lie.”

Jay Forman

In 2001, Jay Forman wrote an article for Slate about “monkeyfishing,” a practice apparently taking place in the Florida Keys where fishermen bait their hooks with apples and catch rhesus monkeys, dragging them into the water. When the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times called the piece a work of fiction, Forman backtracked and admitted to fabricating parts of the stories, but maintained that the trip to the island had happened. It took six years for Forman to come clean and admit to fabricating the entire thing.

James Frey

Not surprisingly, given the ostensibly autobiographical nature of Mike Daisey’s story, he’s most frequently been compared to James Frey. In 2006, The Smoking Gun published the results of an investigation into Frey’s latest memoir, A Million Little Lies, finding numerous discrepancies in his accounts of his drug abuse and criminal record. (Oprah initially defended Frey, but later eviscerated him on her show.) Like Daisey, he defended himself as long as he could, until the lies became too heavy to hold up.

David Sedaris

Also from the realm of the memoirists is David Sedaris. Although Sedaris enjoys a significantly better reputation than anybody else on this list, even he’s not immune to the scourge of the fact checkers. When Alex Heard looked into Sedaris’s output he found a number of discrepancies in his stories and wondered what exactly it means to be a nonfiction humorist.

Related: The Way We Plagiarise Now