Rolling Stone and Brian Williams are only the latest. Sadly, there’s a long and inglorious history of media stumbles.
Sometimes journalists don’t verify what they’re told if they’re crunched for time or committed to a cause. Or they fabricate articles because make-believe is easier (and often more compelling) than digging up and reporting facts. Or they want to burnish their own credentials.
The public soon forgets. But within the industry, the names remain as indelible black marks.
- Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, who won a Pulitzer for a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict living on the streets of the nation’s capital. The problem: The boy never existed. (The Post gave back the Pulitzer.)
- Or Stephen Glass of The New Republic, who fabricated 27 of 41 articles he had published in the magazine, including one about a 15-year-old computer whiz who hacked a large company and was rewarded with a job offer.
- Or Jayson Blair of the New York Times, who made up at least 36 published articles, some of them completely.
The best fix is swift and certain retribution. Cooke, Glass and Blair were fired, forced to resign or banished from the industry. The publications performed public penance.
No mea culpa was as thorough as Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone. He commissioned and published a no-holds-barred investigation by the dean of Columbia University School of Journalism. He retracted the article and wrote an elegant open letter apologizing to all who were harmed, including women raped in the future who may now be less willing to come forward.
By contrast, NBC did a weak job handling the Williams debacle. Williams couldn’t bring himself to say, “I lied.” The closest he could come was that his memories were “conflated” by the fog of war. For its part, NBC couldn’t bring itself to sever the cord completely, settling for a six-month suspension.
Are these situations common? Far from it. They are anomalies. That’s why they attract so much attention when they happen.
Journalists are fond of calling themselves the Fourth Estate — the fourth branch of government, entrusted to keep the others honest. But they are expected to adhere to a higher standard.
When a public trust is violated, the public itself feels violated.
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