Truth may be stranger than fiction, but some reporters are finding it hard to keep them separate. With public distrust of the media running unusually high, journalists have been dismayed by recent disclosures that a columnist and a young writer at two respected publications had made up stories--using fictitious people, phony settings and fabricated quotes.
The swift firings of Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith and New Republic reporter Stephen Glass served as reminders that such fakery is unacceptable in a business that prides itself on credibility. For some, the cases were aberrations; but for others, they were grim confirmation that a disturbing cultural trend in America--the blurring of lines between fact and fiction--may be shadowing the news business. And given the mounting pressures on journalists to "entertain," some experts fear that fictionalization of the news may become more common.
"The confusion of fact and fiction is turning journalism news into entertainment," charges columnist and author Richard Reeves. "And you saw proof of that in the Boston Globe and New Republic stories. . . . You saw writers feeling they had to juice up their stories to make them more interesting to readers."
Further evidence, according to some observers, comes in the controversy over a story broadcast on CNN and then published in Time magazine about a U.S. military operation that allegedly used deadly nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam War. Amid charges that the story was hyped and inaccurate, both news organizations announced last week that they had retained Floyd Abrams, a respected 1st Amendment lawyer, to investigate how the story was reported.
"This confusion [about fact and fiction] is a problem," says Tom Goldstein, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. "Some newspapers today value writing more than reporting. You don't hear people saying now that someone is a hell of a fact-finder. You hear: 'That person is a hell of a writer.' "
And to be a writer in this culture sometimes means shading the truth. This is a world, after all, where consumers are hard-pressed to tell the difference between the truth or fiction of movies like "JFK," TV news "reenactments" of car crashes that never took place, so-called "nonfiction novels" that bend the truth, fictitious memoirs and the like.
None of this is particularly new: Some trace it back to Truman Capote's influential "In Cold Blood" and the so-called New Journalism of the 1960s, which blended nonfiction narrative with colorful, fiction-writing techniques. Writers like Tom Wolfe built their careers on such writing, and although many newspapers made a point of discouraging New Journalism in the '70s and '80s, it has permeated the culture at large.
"The best journalism often reads like a novel, and it's hard to tell truth from fiction sometimes," says David Rosenthal, who heads Simon & Schuster's trade-book division. "Telling the truth remains important, but the way you tell it has broadened, and that's not necessarily a bad thing."
It all depends on how much you're willing to believe. Oliver Stone's "JFK" may have been only partially factual, but it didn't hurt him at the box office. Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss," a best-selling memoir of incest, sparked charges from some critics that she had made up the story. Joe McGuinniss' biography of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was filled with intimate conversations the author couldn't possibly have witnessed.
"The pressure to make stories about the real seem perfectly packaged and seamless is there," says Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. "If anything contributes to these [Smith and Glass] incidents, it's the rising expectation of the juicy quote, the colorful character, the copy that sparkles because of tough competition with other media."
To be sure, Rosen and other experts note that these recent incidents are the exception rather than the rule. "I wouldn't go overboard on this," says Ed Guthman, USC journalism professor and a former Philadelphia Inquirer editor. "There have always been some reporters who did this [invented material] and I think it says a lot more about human nature than anything else."
But others worry about the prevailing winds. The press continues to take a beating over its use of anonymous sources in the Monica S. Lewinsky story. And this week, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an apology, saying it would pay Chiquita Brands International Inc. $10 million for critical articles partially based on stolen voicemail information.
Indeed, a 1997 poll showed that 56% of Americans believe news reporting is often inaccurate. The numbers, compiled by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, were up more than 20 percentage points from a similar poll in 1985.
"We don't live in a particularly righteous or moral culture," says Matt Storin, the Globe editor who terminated Smith. "And all of these things . . . these disturbing incidents . . . contribute to a blurred line of morality."
In Boston, Smith had earned a reputation for tough, incisive reporting. She covered the African American community and a host of other issues with flair, and her lively human interest columns made her a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize in commentary.
But she ran afoul of a fact-checking system the newspaper instituted several years ago. To guard against writers inventing sources or making up quotes, editors would periodically check each columnist's work for accuracy.
During a recent audit, editors could not verify the accuracy of six columns Smith wrote. They confronted her and, when she admitted that material in four columns had been invented, they fired her. It was a painful episode for the paper, and Smith's comments in a farewell column were telling.
Why did she do it? "I wanted the pieces to jolt, to be talked about, to leave the reader indelibly impressed. And sometimes, as a result of trying to do too much at once and cutting corners, they didn't. So I tweaked them to make sure they did. It didn't happen often, but it happened. And if it had happened only once, that was one time too many."
In one case, Smith invented a cancer victim filled with hope and anxiety over news of potential cures. The woman delivered a powerful quote, also made up. It would have been easy for Smith, a seasoned reporter, to find real people and quote them accurately. But she didn't want reality; she wanted impact.
The former columnist, who is also a respected poet and performance artist, "should go back to poetry," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project on Excellence in Journalism, administered by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"I see a connection between the Patricia Smith case and L.A. news directors putting a freeway shootout on television," he adds. "In both, you turn nonfiction into entertainment."
Last week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors withdrew the distinguished writing award it had given Smith for columns written in 1997.
For Glass, a 25-year-old New Republic writer, entertainment seemed to come easy. He was prolific, generating a swarm of stories chronicling life inside the Beltway. However, 27 of the 41 pieces he wrote for the magazine were found to be fictitious. Glass had also fabricated people and quotes in articles written for George and Rolling Stone magazines.
He was caught last month when a reporter for Forbes Digital Tool magazine could not locate a teenage hacker profiled in one of Glass' stories. Shown evidence of this and other falsehoods--some truly elaborate--his editors fired him.
Unlike Smith, Glass has not commented publicly on his motives. But in the ultimate twist, he has reportedly been in contact with several Hollywood screenwriters who are interested in his story, and Vanity Fair has inquired about doing a profile of him.
Clearly, there's life after journalism--especially if you have a talent for bending the facts to juice a story.
A year before he died, Random House editor Joe Fox was talking about his lengthy affiliation with Capote. Asked his opinion of "Hand Carved Coffins," the mesmerizing nonfiction account of a murder case that Capote wrote after "In Cold Blood," Fox laughed heartily.
"I thought it was brilliant, some of the best writing that Truman did," he said. "And I didn't believe a word of it."