If you practice journalism and don’t tell the truth, sooner or later, the lies are going to get you – into a whole lot of trouble.
Last week saw a trifecta of this type of journalistic indiscretion.
The story generating the most buzz came late in the week when The American Life xx Ira Glass retracted a piece the radio show had run in January called “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” on poor working conditions and other abuses at the Chinese factory that makes Apple iPads after it was discovered that Mike Daisey, the writer/monologist who did the piece, made up some of his facts.
His embellishments came to light after a reporter for the Marketplace radio show talked to Daisey’s Chinese translator, who disputed much of what Daisey had said. Glass faulted TAL’s fact checking department, which had vetting Daisey’s piece, for not doing a better job of vetting the piece before it aired – and devoted its entire program last weekend to setting the record straight.
Other media outlets continue to weigh in on Daisey’s duplicity, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and NPR’s On the Media program (which as I write this, still has 15 minutes to go and is generating a ton of online comments). It’s also caused some media critics to dig up previously published stories questioning factual errors and fictionalized material in supposedly journalist work from Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris.
The TAL story wasn’t the only one. Also last week, writers were talking about Jon Flatland, a long-time newsman, columnist and one-time former president of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, who was exposed for copying other writers’ humor columns for years and passing them off. According to this report from Poynter, the journalism training group, when Flatland was confronted by another humor writer about work he’d cribbed, he abruptly resigned as interim managing editor of the Times in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota and left town.
Here in Oregon, the (Portland) Oregonian last week fired long-time breaking news editor Kathleen Glanville after discovering she’d lied to the paper about the circumstances surrounding the death of the paper’s editorial page editor, Bob Caldwell, who had been a close friend. An Oregonian reporter telephoned Caldwell’s house as part of reporting this front-page story on his death and spoke to Glanville, who was there on her day off consoling his wife. Caldwell’s wife had shared with Glanville the location and circumstances of his death – in the apartment of a 23-year-old woman who had been exchanging sex acts for money for textbooks. But Glanville told the reporter that Caldwell had died in his car, a fact the paper didn’t learn until the following day when it obtained the official police report.
The Oregonian ran a clarification the following day, and Glanville took to Facebook to thank the paper for many happy years of employment and say she understood why the paper felt the need to fire her for violating journalistic ethics. “There are times in people’s lives when you have to make a decision about what is most important,” she wrote. “I am sorry that my decision — which came from love — cost me my job. I will always cherish the many people who I have worked beside for so many years.”
Why do reporters and editors lie?
I contacted Craig Silverman, who writes Poynter’s Regret the Error blog and is an authority on newspaper industry screw ups for his take on the problem.
In the case of Daisey and the Oregonian editor,”People felt their lies served a higher cause and purpose,” Silverman says. “They were able to justify their actions to themselves, so anything was fair game after that.”
Aside from that, journalists lie because everybody lies, Silverman says, whether they’re a doctor, carpenter, journalist, athlete, postal worker etc. ”This doesn’t excuse it, but it means we have to do a better job of sniffing out the lies,” he says.
To better understand the situation, Silverman suggested reading this piece written by Jack Shafer, Reuters’ columnist covering politics and the press. In it, Shafer says:
I’m still waiting for somebody who got caught lying while practicing journalism to say why he did it. I have my theory: 1) They lie because they don’t have the time or talent to tell the truth, 2) they lie because think they can get away with it, and 3) they lie because they have no respect for the audience they claim to want to enlighten. That would be an ideal subject for a one-man theatrical performance.
What about you? Have you ever been tempted by deadlines or a dull source to embellish the truth? Ever made gotten away with making something up? Ever caught another reporter in a lie? Join the conversation by leaving a comment.