The worst subversion of journalism

"I lied to the people who were my co-workers and cared about me. I lied to my family. I lied to my editors. I lied to all of the readers, and I lied to the people I was writing about."

That was Stephen Glass last week, spiritedly recounting in a "60 Minutes" interview how he'd practiced total deception as a writer for The New Republic and other magazines until he was discovered in 1998. He would make things up, such as a teenage computer hacker who attended hacker conferences.To spice up a profile of lawyer Vernon Jordan, he falsely alleged that Mr. Jordan behaved lecherously with young women.

And now - this might qualify as a definition of chutzpah - he was on television to promote a book about a journalistic prevaricator, cashing in on his lies one more time.

As full disclosure, if that is needed, let me acknowledge a bias against journalists and media organizations that practice to deceive. After some 60 years in journalism, I've come to regard the reporter as one of the last guardians of reality in an age of "virtual reality," "infotainment," and contrivance.

There are some famous deceptions that have remained with me through the years. There was New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who in 1981, put words into the mouth of an interview subject, psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, and then waved away criticism, saying, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man...."

There was, also in 1981, the talented reporter for The Washington Post, Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of touching articles about a ghetto child hooked on drugs. The child was her invention, and the Post returned the Pulitzer Prize.

In the same genre, and to bring things up to date, there is New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who committed routine acts of journalistic fraud that finally came to light when the San Antonio Express-News alerted the Times to the fact that Mr. Blair had appropriated its story about the family of a man missing in Iraq.

Spotting falsehood on television is more complicated because the medium lends itself so readily to deception. ABC News may simply have lost touch with reality when, in 1989, it aired an exclusive report on American diplomat Felix Bloch, under FBI investigation on suspicion of espionage. It showed Bloch meeting on a Vienna street corner with his Soviet handler, but neglected to mention that this was a reenactment using ABC personnel.

There is also the borderline case of promotional videos for health products made to look like news reports and featuring famous newsmen. Over the years, I have received a few offers to do commercials, and after some soul-searching have declined to become involved in a subversion of reality.

But the worst subversion is deliberate invention. I don't know about you, but when I think of Stephen Glass, who lied about everything and now peddles a book to reward himself for doing so, I wince.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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