What do we talk about when we talk about fake news? Part 2

Over three days I’m sequentially posting a paper I’m giving at the Western Social Science Association.  Instead of being in the form of a traditional academic paper, I’m going to post it in HTML with links to many of the subjects I’m discussing, and links to Amazon for the books that I reference.

Modern Day Fabrications

Let us now jump ahead to the 1980s and 90s and see several examples of fake news fabrications done primarily to provide a boost to individuals hoping to boost their careers and publications hoping to boost their readership.

Janet Cooke and Jimmy’s World

Legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee calls the Janet Cooke story the lowest point in the history of the fabled newspaper.


Cooke was hired by the Washington Post to improve its coverage of the African-American community.  She was a young black woman who claimed to have a degree from Vassar, and she was a fantastic writer.  On Sunday, September 28, 1980, Cooke delivered just the kind of story she had been hired to write – a compelling account of an eight-year-old boy named Jimmy who was a heroin addict being shot up by his mother’s boyfriend.  Although the story was compelling, unfortunately it  wasn’t true–something  that was not discovered until the story was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.  Days after Cooke won the award, reporters discovered that her college credentials had been fabricated, and soon she confessed that the story had been made up, too.

Fourteen years later after Cooke’s story was written, retired Post editor Ben Bradlee was still haunted by the story and by the blow it delivered to the paper’s credibility: “That was a terrible blot on our reputation.  I’d give anything to wipe that one off.”

Stephen Glass’s “too good to be true” stories

Consider the following case: A twenty-five-year-old writer named Stephen Glass had written incredible stories for the New Republic, Rolling Stone, George, and Harper’s. Other writers—some would say jealous colleagues—thought Glass’s stories, with their customary “wow” opening paragraphs that set the scene, were too good to be true. Unfortunately, they were. In 1998, Glass was caught fabricating an article for the New Republic about teenage hackers, and his subsequent firing sent shock waves throughout the magazine industry. Follow-up investigations suggested that Glass had fabricated material for dozens of articles without the magazines’ fact-checkers catching on.

Said Charles Lane, then the editor of the New Republic, “I don’t wish [Glass] ill. . . . I just don’t want him to be in journalism.”[ii] After becoming the poster boy for bad journalism, Glass left the magazine business, went to law school, and wrote a novel. Following the critical and commercial failure of his novel, Glass has reportedly worked as a paralegal and as an occasional member of a Los Angeles comedy troupe.

How did Glass get away with his fabrications? First, the magazines didn’t conduct fact-checking as well as they should have. Second, Glass would submit articles late so that they couldn’t be checked, and he would fabricate substantiation for them, such as a phony Web page and voice mail message for the beleaguered high-tech company in the hacker story.[iv] In an article for the political magazine George, Glass wrote a description of presidential advisor Vernon Jordan based on anonymous sources. He avoided the fact-checking by saying that his sources would be fired if they were contacted at work. After editors found out that Glass had been fabricating articles, fact-checkers discovered that the sources he had cited didn’t exist. To be fair to the fact-checkers, their procedures were designed to catch mistakes, not outright fabrications.

One result of the fallout from Glass’s fabrications was a renewed commitment to fact-checking at magazines; another was increased skepticism toward sensational stories, especially by young writers.

Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith at the Boston Globe

Patricia Smith resigned from the Boston Globe after being asked to do so by the editor. The winner of numerous writing awards during her eight years at the Globe, Smith admitted she had simply made up names and quotes in some of her columns. In her farewell column, she apologized to her readers:

“From time to time in my metro column, to create the desired impact or slam home a salient point, I attributed quotes to people who didn’t exist. I could give them names, even occupations, but I couldn’t give them what they needed most—a heartbeat. As anyone who’s ever touched a newspaper knows, that’s one of the cardinal sins of journalism: Thou shall not fabricate. No exceptions. No excuses.”

That same summer, another Boston Globe writer came under fire. Mike Barnicle, a long-time columnist for the paper and one of its best-known writers, came under suspicion for a number of reasons. In one case, jokes that had appeared in George Carlin’s book Brain Droppings also showed up, unattributed, in Barnicle’s column. Barnicle denied that he had read Carlin’s book, yet it was soon pointed out that he had reviewed the book for a local television station. He was left in the uncomfortable position of having to either admit that he had lied about not reading the book or confess that he had given a rave review to a book he hadn’t read.

Barnicle was originally given a lengthy suspension from the paper rather than being fired, largely because he was popular with readers. But then a second fabrication was discovered. Several years earlier, Barnicle had written a touching column about two boys—one black, one white—who shared a hospital room while they were being treated. When the black child died, Barnicle wrote, the white parents gave the black parents $10,000. In preparing to reprint the article, Reader’s Digest fact checkers investigated the story but found no one at any Boston hospital who could remember such a case taking place. After this became public knowledge, Barnicle resigned from the Globe.

(Barnicle later moved to hosting radio commentary on WTKK in Boston; being a regular guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program; and writing for a number of different publications, including the Boston Herald, Time magazine, and Huffington Post.[3] Since leaving newspaper journalism, Smith has been a successful poetry writer and performer.)

In addition to the shame of dealing with two ethical lapses in one summer, the Globe also had to confront charges that it had been harsh with Smith, a black woman, while giving Barnicle, a white man, a second chance. Brill’s Content, a media criticism magazine, even suggested that problems with Smith’s columns had been ignored for several years because confronting them would have forced editors to address similar charges that had been leveled against Barnicle.

Tomorrow – Part 3: Jon Stewart; the era of Donald Trump.

This entry was posted in Chapter 1, Chapter 14, Chapter 6 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *