May 7, 2008

Lies Heard Round the World

Five years ago on May 11, 2003, the venerable New York Times rocked the world of journalism with a front-page story about one of its own:

A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found. The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper. The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.

It was a stunning admission from the "Gray Lady," one of the country's oldest and most prestigious newspapers.

Rogue journalists — and the pressure to sell more newspapers and magazines, get higher audience ratings and win top awards — have led to scandals for years.

  • • In 1981, The Washington Post was forced to return the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing after reporter Janet Cooke admitted to fabricating the story.
  • • For three years, New Republic reporter Stephen Glass faked notes, voice mail and e-mail messages to pass editors' scrutiny. He even developed a phony Web site to cover his tracks, until his deception was discovered in 1998.

Blair's deception led to his ouster and the resignations of two top editors. For the first time in its history, the Times appointed an ombudsman, or "public editor," to monitor its content. The scandal caused a ripple effect in newsrooms across the country as editors began implementing tough policies to prevent similar occurrences at their newspapers.

Still, in 2004, USA Today reporter Jack Kelley admitted to fabricating several stories, one of which made him a Pulitzer finalist. Kelley, along with two top editors, resigned. USA Today tightened its policy on anonymous sources. A display case on the issue of media credibility is in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

Blair, who wrote a memoir a year after leaving the Times in which he chronicled his experience at the paper, told Editor & Publisher magazine that deception in newsrooms was a common occurrence.

"On an order of magnitude, what I did was an earthquake 10," he said. "But there are equally damaging things that newspapers do every day that are not covered by others."

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