Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Another journalistic fake is exposed

Several years ago, I fell for a story by Stephen Glass.

It was about phone psychics, and it turned out to be one of several stories Glass submitted to a number of magazines. Many of them turned out to have been partially or fully fabricated, and the revelations of these fabrications was a terrible embarrassment to the magazines and the editors who let themselves be fooled.

Readers also felt taken, and I was one of them. Fake news stories have a way of appealing to people because they are well-written and reinforce what people already believe. The villains are just as you’d expect them to be, the poor and oppressed are just as you’d expect them to be. Everyone is quoted just as you’d expect them to speak.

The stories are well-written and leave the reader feeling that they’ve been enlightened.

Journalistic fabulists have been around since forever. Countless news stories have been revealed to be partial or complete fabrications, with quotes invented, scenes created and sources conjured up out of thin air, or combined to create an individual without telling the reader. It’s a legitimate journalistic technique to change the name of a source if that person would be in danger, say referring to a female source as “Jane,” so long as her story is a real person’s story and people are told that her name has been changed for her protection.

It’s not legitimate, though, to combine the stories of several people into one person. It may make the story more vivid or interesting, but it’s wrong and deceptive. I have always said that reality is interesting enough (to me, at least) to stand on its own without being “enhanced” with untruth.

The recent controversy over monologist Mike Daisey shows the danger of allowing people to present stories that fulfill our biases and seem to be “too good to check.” His claims about conditions at Foxconn’s factories in China, where iPhones, iPads and other electronic devices are made, sound like something we’ve heard before and have been proven to be true, but the conflation of stories, the made-up encounters and the unconfirmed claims in his piece have destroyed his reputation as an objective observer.

The Public Radio International program “This American Life” has damaged its reputation by allowing Daisey to present his story as if it were factual. Daisey’s declaration that he’s not a journalist doesn’t get away from the fact that he presented himself as such, both in China and to the show’s listeners, including me. If you’re acting as a journalist, even if you’re not a professional journalist, you’ve bound by a kind of code that says you’ll report what you see, and not enhance it or make it sound better.

The retraction story on “This American Life” this past Sunday was sad because it was clear that Mike Daisey took the show and its host, Ira Glass (no relation to Stephen), for a terrible ride. Daisey made the usual excuses about why he fabricated information, and sometimes offered nothing more than silence. He’s a pitiful waste of a man posing as a journalist when it suits him.

But “This American Life” should have realized that this story was not true. Ira Glass admitted that when they could not reach Daisey’s translator in China – because he gave them a different name from her real name and denied that her cellphone number worked, thus making it impossible for them to contact her – they should have killed the story. But they didn’t.

So why didn’t they? Maybe because it fit in with their preconceptions. They wanted Daisey’s story to be true.

But that’s dangerous, and hazardous to their reputation.

This is something that has been vitally important to me of late. I have been trying to land a job, including in journalism, and have done some freelance work. All the editors have to base their trust in me on is the writing I’ve done and the stories I’ve covered. My reputation is on the line in every story I do. One goof, and I could end up with no reputation in a business where there are many, many people with unsullied reputations who are eager to do the work.

That means an unswerving commitment to the facts, no matter where they lead, and a willingness to listen and report, not comment, on the news you’re covering.

News outlets in the past have turned to “irregulars” for reporting, to people who aren’t journalists and aren’t looking to build and maintain a reputation for honesty and integrity in reporting, and they’ve been burned with spurious and exaggerated reporting, sometimes on the front page of the newspaper or in a prominent place in a magazine or website. We love the amateur detective or the civilian pretending to be a police officer, pounding the pavement to solve crimes because the cops won’t do it.

In journalism, nonprofessionals work for less, are less demanding in terms of pay and benefits, and are believed to be unbiased — until they’re exposed as biased.

It’s easy for an editor to be charmed by a story that’s “too good to check,” but even if it reinforces our dearest-held beliefs, a story has to be checked and, if it’s found to be exaggerated or not true, either rewritten or killed (the story, not the “reporter”). It’s that simple.

The hardest job in journalism is the one that competes with the fabulist. I remember reading during the Jayson Blair dust-up at The New York Times that reporters for The Washington Post were having a terrible time with their bosses during the D.C. sniper story because it seemed like the Post was getting brutally scooped on several key items in the story, including an incident during the interrogation of the suspect.

The Post reporters said their sources were not telling them the things Blair was allegedly getting from his sources. They were taking some serious heat for being behind on a story in their coverage area to a competitor like the Times.

This is a serious matter, and can cost a reporter his job. As it turned out, Blair was making things up but it wasn’t until later that he was caught and the true story came out. Trying to report “straight up” while competing with someone who’s cheating is very hard, and harder for those who cannot believe that someone working in journalism would act that way.

I’m sure that “This American Life” will survive and continue to do an outstanding job of longform radio journalism. Let’s hope a lesson has been learned, though. Trust has been damaged, and people now are skeptical of some of the reporting they see or hear, and that’s not always a bad thing.

It means we in journalism have to make sure we’re doing our jobs right and working to tell the unvarnished truth about whatever we’re covering, even if it’s not as interesting as something that’s made up.

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March 20, 2012 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, The news business | , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Do you remember going with me to see Mike Daisey perform in a one man show in New York City back in 2002?

    Comment by Rob Safuto | March 20, 2012 | Reply

  2. I thought he was familiar. It was supposedly about his time working for Amazon.com. It was called “21 Dog Years: Doing Time at Amazon.com.” I still have the ticket stub and just took it out of my bag.

    Comment by Vincent Safuto | March 20, 2012 | Reply


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