Thank God for fakers! Matchless as deflaters of human and institutional pretension, they furnish us rich measures of malicious glee at the red-faced victims. Pause here to honor Konrad Kujau, whose forged Hitler diaries burst upon the world twenty years ago, fooling the editors of Stern, and of Newsweek.
Kujau churned out the diaries in longhand in the back of his shop in Stuttgart, slopping tea over the pages to lend the requisite touch of antiquity, spurring his weary imagination to such daily entries as “Meet all the leaders of the Storm Troopers in Bavaria, give them medals…. Must not forget tickets for the Olympic Games for Eva…. Because of the new pills I have violent flatulence, and–says Eva–bad breath.”
Kujau never did get his Gothic lettering right and used the initials F.H. instead of A.H. It didn’t make any difference. Stern‘s experts pronounced them genuine and so, to his lifelong embarrassment, did the late Lord Dacre, a k a Hugh Trevor-Roper, who, as the designated expert hired by Rupert Murdoch’s London Sunday Times, gave them his scholarly endorsement.
Faker du jour is Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter. I give him an F for lack of ambition in the faker’s arts. He exhibited the caution of the tyro: a faked quote here, an imagined description there, a paragraph or two of sedate plagiarism. In its heyday, half a century ago, Time magazine reinvented the world in a weird elliptical style. Blair’s timid inventions are testimony to the banality of today’s journalese, by which our own Gothic world is tamed in the interests of corporate capital on a daily basis.
Circumspectly ambitious as only a Times-man can be, Blair served just the sort of fare that would please his bosses, not least the Times‘s executive editor, Howell Raines. Blair’s finest hour, fabricating background and unattributed quotes from cops and prosecutors amid the media maelstrom after the arrest of the Washington snipers, came, I hear, because Raines sent him down from New York, hoping that scoops from Blair would upstage the Times‘s Washington bureau and thus advance Raines’s intrigue to replace its current chief with one of his own toadies. Blair obediently rose to the occasion.
How Blair must be chafing at the unfairness of it all! Why him? He makes up a few blind quotes from high-level FBI officials and prosecutors, and the skies fall in. He even has to endure the indignity of having William Safire, unindicted besmircher of a thousand reputations, pontificating about journalistic integrity. Where are the whole special supplements of the New York Times that would be required to apologize for its baseless insinuations against Wen Ho Lee (a Jeff Gerth special, written with James Risen and abetted by William Safire), or against the Clintons for their real estate dealings in Whitewater (another Jeff Gerth special)?
The Times went overboard with its four pages on Blair’s deceptions, but the overkill, as no doubt publisher Arthur Sulzberger and Raines knew, has played to their paper’s long-term advantage. The more voluminous the sackcloth, the more nobly impressive the sinner, and the profuse deployment of sackcloth and ashes serves, albeit on a grander scale, the same function as the daily Corrections box, which notes minor errors. The unstated implication with these corrections is that everything else that appeared in those editions of the Times was true.
There’s been a campaign to get Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer rescinded, for obscuring Stalin’s crimes, a move I oppose because such a rescission would have the same effect as that Corrections box, insinuating that all other Pulitzers are deserved. I do make an exception in the case of Thomas Friedman, whose three Pulitzers do have the utility of reminding us that he’s at least three times more of a blowhard than any other pundit in the field.
It’s not the first time the paper has opted for overkill. I remember a Times editorial back in 1982, commenting on what began with my own exposé of Christopher Jones, who had written an article in The New York Times Magazine about a visit to Cambodia during which he claimed to have seen Pol Pot through binoculars.
In this same piece Jones made the mistake of lifting an entire paragraph from André Malraux’s novel La Voie Royale. I pointed this out in my column in the Village Voice, adding the obvious point that Jones’s binoculars must have been extremely powerful to have allowed him to recognize Pol Pot, let alone describe his eyes as “dead and stony.” My item stirred the Washington Post to point an accusing finger. Then the Times itself unleashed a huge investigation of the wretched Jones and ran a pompous editorial proclaiming that “it may not be too much to say that, ultimately, it debases democracy.”
I remember thinking at the time that as a democracy debaser, Jones looked like pretty small potatoes. Back then we were in the early days of the Reagan Administration, and the Times was trimming its sails just as it had been since the fall of Nixon, when its proprietor, Punch Sulzberger, like other big newspaper moguls such as the late Katharine Graham, had decided that excessively frank reporting of political realities was not the business of the Fourth Estate.
I write this column on May 21, a day, like so many other days, when I turn to the front page of the Times and find yet one more article by Judith Miller on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The words “official” and “officials” are used nineteen times, only once with an actual name attached. There are military officials, intelligence officials, White House officials, but never a human actually identified by Miller.
On the one hand we have Blair, a humble toiler in the Times vineyard, now branded as the great traducer; on the other, Miller, who, as I pointed out here a month ago, has been a major, interested player in one of the greatest disgraces in the history of American journalism–to wit, its complicity in the fomenting of pretexts to invade Iraq. Blair’s problem was that he didn’t quite figure out the rules of the faking game.