Why Embellishment Can Be So Tempting

Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

I suspect my job just got a little harder because of Patricia Smith. If you've not heard the story, here are the basics: Smith, a black columnist at the Boston Globe, was forced to resign after Globe editors discovered that she had fabricated at least four sources for columns she had written. A couple were supporting characters, people added in for local color, commentators who buttressed a point she was trying to make. But one was the linchpin of a piece, a woman named "Claire" who discussed her upcoming chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Claire doesn't exist, except in Smith's active imagination.

This was particularly embarrassing because last year Smith had been nominated for a Pulitzer and had received an award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for other columns. (The Globe says columns submitted for those awards were problem-free.) No doubt the Globe shivered, remembering the Washington Post's experience with Janet Cooke, a whiz-kid writer who for some reason felt the need to fuel her ascent to the top of the newsroom heap with a totally fictitious story about a 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. She won a Pulitzer for it and had to give it back.

There was some question as to whether the Globe had exercised a double standard in scrutinizing Smith's columns when its irascible veteran, Mike Barnicle, had often been rumored to do the same thing. So the Globe examined two years of Barnicle's 25 years' worth of columns, too, and concluded, "We believe these columns met professional standards and we believe [Barnicle's] own assertions . . . that this is so." ("An exoneration maybe," tartly noted Internet magazine Salon, "but not exactly 'We stand by our story.' ")

Whether that double standard exists, there's no excuse for what Smith did, and the Globe was right to demand that she leave. But I also understand why there haven't been hundreds of columns by people like me in the wake of Smith's resignation: Many of us who do this, week in week out, understand the temptation to just stick in someone's voice to underscore a point we're trying to make. Note: I said I understand the temptation, not that I've given in to it.

Columns are different from straight reporting in that they contain opinion, which straight reporting, in theory at least, doesn't. But in most columns, the opinion doesn't come from thin air; it comes from things that happen in the news and people's--including the columnists'--reactions to them. And if you want to report on the man or woman in the street, you actually have to get out into the street and speak with them. This is getting harder and harder to do at some newspapers and magazines, where reporters are often tethered to their desks and encouraged to use the telephone a lot.

It's a complicated problem, because in some neighborhoods, the press, because of its previous ham-handed or uneven coverage of minority communities, is almost as suspect as the police, and you have to tread carefully. I'm very aware that my ethnicity affords me some measure of camouflage in my own neighborhood when I wander around, trolling for spontaneous black perspectives, but my press association is sometimes a hindrance. I have had people speak very freely about welfare reform, child abuse and civic responsibility--until I identify myself and ask if they'll speak on the record. Then, often, it's instant lockjaw. Frequently, people will allow you to quote them if you don't attribute the quote to them. Sometimes you don't even get that.

So you learn to decide, on a case-by-case basis, what you can and can't live with. Sometimes you just eavesdrop and report on an overheard conversation--and state that the conversation is overheard, not told to you directly. And sometimes you lose a story because it seems too intrusive to ask for a name and phone number.

I had one of those conversations recently in a new drugstore at Rodeo and LaBrea. It illustrated beautifully why it's cheaper to give a little help to elderly people who are raising the children of their children (and grandchildren) and who are trying desperately to keep their young relatives from falling into the ragged safety net that is our current foster care system. But the person in question had to fudge legalities of welfare or Medi-Cal rules a little to make things work, and she was speaking to me mother to mother, not reporter to source.

Reluctantly I passed on the idea of building a column around her and wrote something else. It's an option Smith had. And because she didn't take it, columnists everywhere--and black columnists in particular--probably will be scrutinized more closely from now on.

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