Check It Out

I’ve never understood reporters who invent stories, events, sources or quotes. Whether reporters expect to get away with it is unclear, but getting caught can be a career-killer. Who trusts a proven cheat or unreasonable litigation risk?

Feb 17, 2016 at 11:06 am

I’ve never understood reporters who invent stories, events, sources or quotes.

It can range from inventing conventions of young political activists to 8-year-old heroin addicts.  Whether reporters expect to get away with it is unclear, but getting caught can be a career-killer. Who trusts a proven cheat or unreasonable litigation risk?Inventing events, sources and quotes in recent years isn’t limited to perps in their twenties. Some cheats survived because their frauds were not recognized or ignored.I’m not talking about supermarket tabloids that obviously invent stories for entertainment or seemingly serious news media that hit readers, viewers and listeners with outrageous but seemingly credible April Fools stories. Of these, my favorite remains NPR’s April 1 story about the need to tap maple trees or they’ll explode with lethal force with sap runs in the spring. It was brilliant, with “expert” academic interviews and all. Sometimes, however, employers went public with apologies, corrections and retractions and their embarrassment became national news. In these cases, fabulists often enjoyed highly coveted professional opportunities and were protected by inattentive editing or active management favoritism.   In the 1990s, Stephen Glass invented sources and events in more than 20 stories at the New Republic. He lost his job in 1998. Glass’s frauds were made into a movie, Shattered Glass.In 2002, Jayson Blair resigned after dozens of faked stories in the New York Times. He lifted material from other papers, invented scenes and filed stories from places he had never been. Dozens of Blair’s stories contained such problems, including reports about the Washington sniper shootings and wounded Iraq war veterans.(When I asked Google for “reporters inventing stories,” Blair came up first.)Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press wrote an advance column in 2005 about a basketball game that hadn’t been played and crowd reactions that didn’t happen. The franchise columnist, he kept his job. Talented storytellers? Hell, yes. It’s a lot easier to tell a vivid story when you’re not encumbered by facts. Attribute it to youthful indiscretions? Fear of failure? Ambition? Drugs? Pressure to succeed? Bull. When you’re young, you bust your ass to get the real story, the real sources and the real quotes. They’re the lasting foundation to a great portfolio and reputation. Then you do it again and again for as long as you’re a reporter. Most of the reporters I’ve known climbed the trade in that slogging, traditional fashion. Last month, Juan Thompson joined Glass, Blair, Albom and others. Online investigative publication fired Thompson for deceiving editors and readers. (The Intercept’s creators include journalists who brought us Edward Snowden and his NSA eavesdropping revelations.) Editor-in-chief Betsy Reed wrote on that Thompson “fabricated several quotes in his stories and created fake email accounts that he used to impersonate people, one of which was a Gmail account in my name. “An investigation into Thompson’s reporting turned up three instances in which quotes were attributed to people who said they had not been interviewed. In other instances, quotes were attributed to individuals we could not reach, who could not remember speaking with him, or whose identities could not be confirmed. “In his reporting Thompson also used quotes that we cannot verify from unnamed people whom he claimed to have encountered at public events. Thompson went to great lengths to deceive his editors, creating an email account to impersonate a source and lying about his reporting methods.“We have published corrections and editor’s notes to the affected pieces, and we will publish further corrections if we identify additional problems. We are retracting one story in its entirety. We have decided not to remove the posts but have labeled them ‘Retracted’ or ‘Corrected,’ based on our findings.

“We have added notes to stories with unconfirmed quotes. We apologize to the subjects of the stories; to the people who were falsely quoted; and to you, our readers. “We are contacting news outlets that picked up the corrected stories to alert them to the problems. Thompson wrote mostly short articles on news events and criminal justice. Many of these articles relied on publicly available sources and are accurate; others contain original reporting that held up under scrutiny. “Thompson admitted to creating fake email accounts and fabricating messages, but stood by his published work. He did not cooperate in the review.”The retracted story dealt with racist Dylann Roof, accused killer of nine African-American worshippers in a South Carolina church. Here’s the start of the trouble with Thompson’s story: “Scott Roof, who identified himself as Dylann Roof’s cousin, told me over the telephone that ‘Dylann was normal until he started listening to that white power music stuff.’ He also claimed that ‘he kind of went over the edge when a girl he liked starting dating a black guy two years back.’ ”Reed’s note tops the website story: “After speaking with two members of Dylann Roof’s family, The Intercept can no longer stand by the premise of this story. Both individuals said that they do not know of a cousin named Scott Roof. The problems with this story reflect a pattern of misattributed quotes that The Intercept uncovered in stories written by Juan Thompson…”Among other fabulists and fabricators, according to, were these: The New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer resigned after admitting he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his new book.More recently known for his frequent presence on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Mike Barnicle’s problems began in 1973, when a court said Barnicle invented a quote and the Boston Globe was forced to pay $40,000 in damages. In 1990, he quoted Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz as saying he likes Asian women because they’re “submissive.” The Globe paid $75,000 in a settlement after Dershowitz sued. Barnicle was forced to resign from the Boston Globe in 1998 after plagiarizing the comedian George Carlin in a column. In 2004, Fox News apologized to presidential candidate John Kerry after Carl Cameron falsely reported Kerry received a manicure before a presidential debate. Cameron wrote a story posted to Fox’s website with made-up quotes from Kerry. “I’m metrosexual — he’s a cowboy!” the senator supposedly said in the story.Jack Kelly, a foreign correspondent and Pulitzer finalist, resigned in 2004 after his editors at USA Today found at least eight of his major stories to be false. Politico said these included a “high speed hunt” for Osama bin Laden in 2003.Fabrication became a modern concern throughout the trade after Janet Cooke returned her Pulitzer Prize for her Washington Post profile of an 8-year-old heroin addict. Cooke admitted making up “Jimmy’s World” after editors at the Toledo Blade — where Cooke had previously worked — noticed she had inflated her resume. The Post’s published post mortem — which described how Cooke got away with her fraud — set a high standard for fault-finding and transparency. Patricia Smith, a Boston Globe metro columnist like Barnicle, quit after an editor caught her creating characters in her columns. Smith admitted four of her columns contained fictional elements.A 1921 Pulitzer clanger involved Louis Seibold. A New York World reporter, he faked an interview with President Woodrow Wilson with the help of the president’s wife and chief of staff. Wilson was incapacitated due to a stroke. I’ve had sources ask me, “Did I really say that?” Yup. And I’ve had sources complain — with a hint of humor — that an accurate quote would create problems for them. Once, however, an interview source accused me of fabricating what he felt was a defamatory quote. He was wrong. My managing editor studied my notes and concluded that the quote was real and hardly defamatory in context. Actually, neither of us understood why anyone would consider it defamatory. None of this means mistakes don’t happen. I’ve made them. So have colleagues whose work I’ve edited. What’s missing is intent. Glass, Blair, Thompson and others knew they were lying and enjoyed the praise their undetected frauds brought. Curmudgeon Notes: • Editor Marty Baron was hero of the Boston Globe decision to free the Spotlight team to pursue sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Now, he’s editor of the Washington Post. Here is Baron on the news media today as reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.:"The greatest danger to a vigorous press today comes from ourselves."The press is routinely belittled, badgered, harassed, disparaged, demonized, and subjected to acts of intimidation from all corners — including boycotts, threats of cancellations (or defunding, in the case of public broadcasting) … Our independence — simply posing legitimate questions — is seen as an obstacle to what our critics consider a righteous moral, ideological, political, or business agenda. "In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone."Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.”• A cutline on a recent Enquirer page of snow photos was a hoot. It showed UC students walking on barren sidewalks, but to some editor, that was a “slog.”  Generally, slog means hard work, as in wading through drifts up to their knees or following a mind-numbing lecture. Pictured students didn’t even have a wind to lean into. Maybe any walk is a “slog” for UC students who wait, sheep-like, for UC buses to carry them a few blocks. • Black students at the University of Missouri again tried to evict a white videographer trying to cover their public campus gathering.Someone should tell them you don’t exclude reporters when you call an open meeting. It replayed the November confrontation between Concerned Student 1950 and student journalist Mark Schierbecker. They didn’t want him reporting at their tent city anti-racism protest. He stayed. Schierbecker’s video of assistant professor Melissa Click calling for black student “muscle” to eject him went viral. Click was charged with assault and suspended from teaching. Last week’s meeting also was called by Concerned Student 1950. A leader opened with, “If there are any reporters in here, can you please exit. This is my nice warning.” A white reporter from the local daily left, but Schierbecker wouldn’t, saying, “This is considered a limited public forum. It’s open to the public, and especially to students of the university. I am here on assignment for a story and it is my personal preference to stay.”That’s when it got racial. Among other remarks, he recorded another black student complaining, “Cuz this is once again, like, white people being privileged.” The group leader asked others to call police and file a “racial bias incident report.”Schierbecker offered to put his video camera away if police were not called. Instead, the group moved to a more private location.• A Feb. 5 letter to the New York Times Book Review is a clear explanation of the praised and reviled Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. It responded to a review of a book on secret political donations. “Shedding Light on Dark Money” is the headline on the letter. It explains what Citizens United did and didn’t do and concludes that the IRS and now Congress have been “the cause of dark money, not the Supreme Court and not Citizens United.” • Washington Post tracked how politically conservative states rely most heavily on federal money. Kentucky was 12th, while Ohio and Indiana were 19th and 20th. The Post relied on information from the nonpartisan Tax Foundation. Most dependent included Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Georgia, Alabama and Maine. How heavily? Well, in 2013, No. 1 Mississippi drew 42.9 percent of its overall revenues from federal sources. Kentucky drew 35.1 percent, Ohio 33.6 percent and Indiana 33.4 percent. When will politics reporters ask small-government presidential aspirants which federal programs they would cut or eliminate for the states? That would be a welcome relief from stenographic reporting of polls and horse-race primary coverage. • Newsweek dissected sexual abuse convictions of three priests and a teacher and found the so-called victim, named Billy Doe in court, disturbed and unbelievable. Newsweek’s investigation carried the headline, “Catholic Guilt? The Lying, Scheming Altar Boy Behind a Lurid Rape Case.”  Fine journalism, but still a local Philadelphia story except for a way the case spun off nationally. Here’s part of what Newsweek said:“The Billy Doe rape story was so sensational it attracted the attention of crusading Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She described Billy Doe in a 2011 story, ‘The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files,’ as a ‘sweet, gentle kid with boyish good looks’ who had been callously ‘passed around’ from predator to predator. According to the charges recounted by Erdely, two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher ‘raped and sodomized the 10-year-old, sometimes making him perform stripteases or getting him drunk on sacramental wine after Mass.’ ”Erdely later wrote the Rolling Stone story about “Jackie,” a University of Virginia student who falsely claimed she was gang-raped at a fraternity party. Her story, which reinforced dubious claims of a national “rape culture” on campus, was retracted by Rolling Stone.Both Billy and Jackie proved to be unreliable primary sources. We’re back to basics: check it out, especially when it’s too good to be true. • Let’s hope Rolling Stone gets it right this time with its story about Wayne Simmons, who it describes as a phony CIA veteran offered to the public by Fox News as an analyst. Even the Pentagon believed his bullshit, Rolling Stone said, inviting him into its military analysts program. Now, feds are prosecuting Simmons for “multiple counts of fraud, saying he had never worked for the CIA,” Rolling Stone said. “Prosecutors alleged that Simmons used his supposed intelligence experience not only to secure time on Fox and an audience with (W’s defense secretary Donald) Rumsfeld, but also to obtain work with defense contractors, including deployment to a military base in Afghanistan. He was also charged with bilking $125,000 from a woman, with whom prosecutors say he was romantically involved, in a real-estate investment that did not exist. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his trial is scheduled to begin February 23.”• reports that St. Louis County won’t drop charges against two reporters who covered the uprising in Ferguson after a cop killed Michael Brown. Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly and Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery are charged with trespassing on private property and interference with a police officer. Their defense attorney says the county has no case. Its municipal court has jurisdiction only over violations within unincorporated areas of the county. Huffington Post says that the alleged violations occurred in Ferguson, which is fully incorporated. 

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]