The radio went on in the middle of the night and there in my ear was the voice of a young man. It was a soothing voice, deferential, quizzical, NPR-ish, the voice boy journalists in the high-end media use when they are trying to get Nazis to talk about their childhoods. And yet there was a kind of suppressed glee in it, too–as if he had just gotten the perfect quote from Adolf Jr. for his lead. Yes, the young man said ruefully, he knew people hated him; yes, he’s become more religious. Well, naturally! This was Stephen Glass, the New Republic tale-spinner, pushing his autobiographical novel The Fabulist, and public contrition just goes with the territory. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously said there are no second acts in American lives, should only be alive to see how wrong he was.
There’s one person besides his agent who should be overjoyed at Glass’s splashy re-emergence from obscurity, and that is Jayson Blair. Forced out at the New York Times on May 1 for a wide variety of journalistic sins–plagiarizing, making things up, getting things wrong, pretending to be eyewitness reporting from Maryland and Texas while never actually leaving the city–Blair, too, has acknowledged that he was “troubled,” and has an agent trying to secure a six-figure advance for a tell-all book. While no one judged Glass as a case of whiteboyism run amok, Blair, who is black, is now exhibit A for affirmative-action bashers: You see what happens when guilty liberals coddle the unqualified? Janet Cooke, the black journalist fired from the Washington Post after winning a Pulitzer for a fabrication, tends to come in for a mention at this point–never mind that she was canned twenty-two long years ago. Glass’s reappearance is a timely reminder that liars and manipulators come in all colors of the rainbow.
Everyone is asking how these two were able to deceive so many for so long. But is it so mysterious? As many a woman has learned to her chagrin, pathological liars are brilliant at deception. They know how to make a story sparkle, they breezily proffer instant explanations for any little inconsistency, they’re scheming all the time while you, their mark, are preoccupied with a hundred other things. Besides, you want to believe them–they’re so charming, attentive and flattering. According to numerous accounts, Blair was a champion sycophant to Times top editor Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, his second-in-command; Glass was the quintessential young man in a hurry, smart and needy, someone in whom his editors could see their younger selves. As George editor Richard Blow, one of Glass’s victims, confessed in Salon, these professional liars know how to play to your secret wishes and preconceptions. Glass’s hilarious tales–young conservatives engaging in drug-fueled orgies, women stricken en masse with crushes on UPS men–played on the desire of his wonkish Beltway editors to feel superior and in-the-know.
As Blow acknowledges, to his credit, Glass pandered to his editors’ tacit racism, too. He wrote a piece for Harper’s allegingthat blacks spend tons of cash on phone psychics and one for The New Republic that told of his cabdriver being robbed by a black man. One of the fabrications that finally brought him down was an article for George alleging that Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan had Monicas of his own. It’s interesting how often race and class prejudice show up in these discredited stories. Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer was for a feature about an 8-year-old black heroin addict. Ruth Shalit, The New Republic‘s star plagiarizer, attacked the Washington Post in an error-strewn piece for pandering to racial sensitivities. (Her editor, Andrew Sullivan, is now enjoying himself at the Times‘s expense–but while the Times prostrated itself with a 14,000-word article detailing Blair’s derelictions, The New Republic issued only pro forma regret.) Jay Forman’s mostly invented Slate article on the obscure Florida sport of monkey-fishing in the mangroves played to stereotypes about backwoods Southerners–they eat squirrels and sleep with their sisters, so why wouldn’t they fish for monkeys, too?
Blair now joins a lengthening list of disgraced journalists–don’t forget Mike Barnicle (plagiarized), Patricia Smith (made up quotes and people) and my favorite ethical line-crosser, Bob Greene (slept with a high schooler who interviewed him for her school paper). The Times has suspended Rick Bragg, a Raines protégé whose lavishly overwritten tales of Southern life provoked many an eyeroll from acerbic New Yorkers, for excessive reliance on an uncredited volunteer stringer who did his actual reporting. Several other Times reporters are allegedly under investigation by management as well.
It sounds like management needs to take a look at itself, and not just about such common journalistic failings as borrowed phrases and embellished quotes. It’s embarrassing to see Times brass flagellating themselves with tiny Blair corrections (“The sister of Corporal Gardner is named Cara, not Kara”) while weighty issues of news content go unaddressed. For all their slapdash dishonesty, none of Blair’s stories affected the course of any event. That cannot be said of the paper’s relentless pushing of Whitewater, which helped stall a presidency but ended without a Clinton indictment, or its unfounded, life-destroying pursuit of Wen Ho Lee.
At the present moment, the question of whether Rick Bragg personally witnessed the “jumping mullet that belly-flop with a sharp clap into steel-gray water” is trivial compared with Judith Miller’s credulous reports on Iraq. Here we have a Pulitzer-winning reporter who alleges that an unnamed Iraqi scientist has proof both of WMDs and of Saddam’s connections with Al Qaeda and Syria. Miller got this fascinating scoop from her Army handlers–she never questioned him herself; indeed, she never even met him! She allowed the Army to vet her copy and determine the timing of its publication. Result: a front-page story that was trumpeted everywhere as the retroactive justification for war.
Where were the editors who should have reined in this Administration-friendly flight of fancy? The person who put Miller’s story on page one has more to answer for than the harried administrator who didn’t notice that Blair’s travel receipts were from a Starbucks in Brooklyn.