The Monitor's View

Lies and consequences

Another memoir hoax packs a punch that hits at more than just the world of letters.

Truth took a hit in the literary world this week. The author of an acclaimed memoir, "Love and Consequences," about a foster girl who survives gang life in Los Angeles, was forced to admit it was a hoax. But it's not just in the realm of letters where integrity is under siege.

The US Army just confirmed that thousands of soldiers are cheating on online tests for promotions. As a consequence, it will spend millions of dollars to revise the correspondence courses.

The British magazine Nature reports that a new scanning program has identified 76 cases of outright plagiarism among professors (not students) of biomedicine. As a consequence, the study's entire database of articles is on a public website for peer review – and peer pressure.

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Meanwhile, public confidence in American journalism has steadily declined, as has the credibility of information on the Internet. In the book publishing world, economics no longer favor fact checking. But if these "never mind" cases continue to crop up, that, too, could have its consequences (hopefully, one of them will be more vigorous checking).

It could be argued that Americans have become too cynical to expect much truth in what they read, hear, or watch. And some may misrepresent themselves on résumés or appropriate the accomplishments of others because they see that as the only way to advance in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

But signs abound that people actually do care about integrity in communication.

What else explains the trend in antiplagiarism software, ethics courses in business schools, or character education in classrooms? Or the "truth boxes" published by the media that catch mischaracterizations and campaign fibs? Or firings for bogus credentials in academia and business? Notre Dame's football coach was terminated quickly a few years ago after a reporter discovered inaccuracies in his official biography.

The truth is, truth matters. People lead real lives, not virtual ones. To navigate, they must fix their sextant on something concrete.

For instance, when an employer hires someone for certain stated skills, it's for those skills, not fictitious ones. When a science magazine publishes results of a study – results that may influence lives – that study must have verifiable data.

A memoir is not a résumé or a scientific study. But it is a contract of truthfulness with a reader, although admittedly memory can be a subjective author. Still, a reader trusts that a memoirist has taken pains to be accurate. Indeed, that is one reason the reader enters into this intimate contract, for the "true story" – not merely for the emotional truth, as argued by James Frey, author of the discredited memoir, "A Million Little Pieces."

Readers may look to this genre for a titillating peek into another's life, but often also for insight on themselves. What if the basis of that inspiration is part or all mirage?

Just last week, another memoir evaporated. Misha Defonseca acknowledged her bestselling Holocaust story as a fake after a genealogist outed her. Holocaust deniers will have a field day with this.

As individuals and as a society, we lose our bearings when we compromise on truth.

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