WASHINGTON — Truth is stranger than fiction, except when the truth turns out to be fiction, as it has in several reputable media outlets in recent weeks.
Indeed, media fakes seem everywhere today, from a Boston Globe columnist who concocted sources, to a New Republic writer whose pieces were, indeed, too good to be true, to a series on the business of fruit that The Cincinnati Enquirer ate crow over.
Reporters have long faced challenges to their credibility. In 1981, The Washington Post's Janet Cooke was stripped of a Pulitzer Prize when it turned out she had made up her gripping story of a child drug addict.
As did the Cooke case, the most recent instances of phony journalism call into question the profession's very integrity. Why the resurgence of the problem?
One possible cause: cacophony. As the proliferation of media outlets continues on cable and the Internet, reporters and editors are grappling to stay atop the clutter.
Along the way, ethics and standards are taking a beating, and the old-fashioned wringer of fact-checking that stories once went through to make it to air or press just isn't there.
"When the values of journalism are subjugated to the pressures of competition, the frenzy kind of news coverage we have on every issue, the result is shoddy work," says Jim Squires, former editor of The Chicago Tribune.
Other critics say journalism's problems run even deeper.
Out-and-our fakery is "retail malfeasance," says Jeremy Iggers, author of "Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Interest."
There will always be scoundrels who make up quotes, situations, even whole characters, he says. But Mr. Iggers adds that he believes such events are sideshows that divert the public's attention from what's really wrong with the media.
"What's wrong has to do with wholesale dereliction of duty," Iggers says, citing television news as an example.
Network preoccupation with the more scurrilous details of the Lewinsky case and the Diana, Princess of Wales, story comes at the expense of more substantive issues. The trend is just as acute at the local level. "There is a virtual abandonment of [coverage of] local affairs and local government," his research found.
What news scandals overshadow, of course, is that thousands of journalists go about their jobs every day with integrity. Overall, US journalism today is far more accurate than it was in the days of yellow scandal sheets and hat-brim-snapping news dogs.
"There is ... a lot more concern these days about ethics, more self-analysis than I can ever remember," says Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review.
Many Americans don't believe that, however. "The public still has a very low opinion ... of TV and newspaper reporters (55 percent have a good opinion, down 21 percent from 1976)," according to a new Roper poll.
Recent cases have done nothing to reverse that trend:
* Former New Republic associate editor Stephen Glass was fired when it was learned he made up people and fabricated quotes in 27 of the 41 articles he had written for that magazine.
* Columnist Patricia Smith left The Boston Globe following discovery that four of her columns contained fictional quotes and characters.
* The Cincinnati Enquirer has run three front-page apologies to Chiquita Brands International Inc., and paid the firm $10 million, over reporting the Enquirer said drew "untrue conclusions" about Chiquita's employment and business practices, and was based on unethically obtained information.
In addition, a joint report by Cable News Network and Time charging that the US military used nerve gas against US defectors during the Vietnam War has come under fierce fire from detractors.
CRITICS of the story point out that, among other things, a key source wrote a book on Vietnam some years ago without mentioning the incident. The source now says he "recovered" memories of the use of gas while talking with CNN reporters, after suppressing them for many years.
CNN hired its own private investigator to investigate its investigation. On July 2, this audit determined that the story, disputed by "hundreds" of veterans and military officials, could not be supported by available evidence.
Tom Johnson, chairman of the CNN News Group, issued a statement apologizing to viewers and to U.S. military personnel.
In response to such controversies, some journalists are banding together to promote higher standards.
The Committee of Concerned Journalists now has more than 1,000 reporter members. It has conducted nearly a dozen forums with journalists nationwide, examining professional core values.
"What we found is that journalists today were already trying to take some time to talk about and rediscover what their core principles are, what makes journalism unique," says Amy Mitchell, Committee of Concerned Journalists staff director in Washington.