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DON'T BELIEVE IT!
HOW LIES BECOME NEWS
By Alexandra Kitty
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2005 Alexandra Kitty
All rights reserved.
Can you get what you want? Can you get what you need? It's hard to get either without information: facts and evidence are the tools you use to choose the best option for you. Do you invest your life savings in a blue chip company with record-breaking profits based on what your financial planner tells you, or do you turn to a psychic for advice? Which form of cancer therapy do you choose: the one that showed promise in carefully controlled clinical trials, or the one that was touted by a D-list celebrity in an infomercial? Why did you decide to enroll in a particular college? How do you decide which presidential candidate you will vote for? How do you choose your doctor or lawyer?
Each decision is based on finding the right information and then weighing your options. No matter how you get your information, it has to come from somewhere—hopefully, that information source is accurate, relevant, useful, timely and truthful.
News is accessible any time, any place, from the corner store to your hotel room to your living room. Journalists cover a wide variety of topics—politics, business, health, education, technology, entertainment, crime. They report on local, national and international issues that are relevant to their audiences. Whether the topic is a product recall or a recall election, most expect the press to give the right information for us to make informed decisions.
Yet an increasing number of us don't quite trust journalists, despite the fact that most of us rely on at least one form of media for our news. Journalists have been accused of bias, distortion and outright deception. So how did the journalistic profession go from the heights of Woodward and Bernstein to the lows of Stephen Glass, Jack Kelley and Jayson Blair? Why don't we trust journalists, regardless of their qualifications or solid track record? What have those who work in the news media done to arouse such a level of suspicion in the public?
Maybe it was the media's lack of safeguards that helped blemish its image. You don't have to reach far into the memory pool to find an example: in the August 2002 edition of Details magazine, an article carrying the byline of Spy magazine founder and former New York Magazine editor Kurt Andersen was a breezy, if somewhat pointless piece on male gossips. In his surprisingly lackluster story, the writer began with the kind of colorful anecdotal opening that magazine editors love to see:
In Washington not so long ago, the postmodern airhead Goldie Hawn called for Americans to recognize how hurtful—how manly!—gossip can be. Speaking on behalf of a poignant anti-dish campaign called Words Can Heal, which disgracefully exploited the culture's 9-11 neo-Amishness, Hawn told of her wrenching experiences at the hands of male rumormongers. "I have sat around dinner tables where they have done nothing but talk about people the whole dinner," she bleated. "You can actually talk about real stuff ... Or you can be just a gerbil running in a cage with that little roundy roundy toy and going nowhere."
It wasn't the only thing going nowhere. The story was quickly forgotten—that is, until Andersen made a call to Details, asking how an article he hadn't written could have his byline on it.
It turned out that Andersen didn't write the piece or have any connection to it at all. Someone had apparently written an article with Andersen's name attached, without his permission. This debacle led to some disheartening conclusions:
Fact-checkers didn't get in contact with Andersen;
The editor-in-chief ran with the story without speaking directly to Andersen or procuring a signed contract;
No one at the magazine could account for how someone—inside or outside the publication—could bamboozle the magazine without a sweat.
Then again, the article was a useless and fluffy canard printed in an otherwise disposable men's fashion magazine. Hoaxes may sneak into glossies, but not into the finger-staining pages of newspapers whose staff diligently tell their readers about the issues of the day. Small community and large metro newspapers will weed out the lies and the frauds. Right?
Not quite. Mike Barnicle was a newspaper columnist for the Boston Globe, known for his engaging columns and slice-of-life takes on the city; that is, until questions arose about one of his 1998 columns. Barnicle was first suspended from the Globe for lifting jokes from a book penned by comedian George Carlin. After an investigation into Barnicle's previous stories, there were more questions swirling around his October 8, 1995 column about a nine-year-old boy who was battling cancer:
Their son struck up a friendship with another boy on the floor, a ten-year-old who—like him—loved baseball. And on those dreamy summer nights when the Olde Towne Team was home, the two of them would sit by a window on an upper floor in a hospital ward and listen to games on the radio as they looked at the lights of the ballpark off in the distance, washing across the July sky like some brilliant Milky Way all their own.
These two sick children became thick as thieves, joined by their passion for the Red Sox along with the anchor of their cancer. Naturally, their parents became friends, too.
Sadly, the nine-year-old died from his illness and his parents struggled both emotionally and financially, until a mysterious letter arrived at their home—which read, in part:
"We will never forget the kindness you showed our son at Children's ... We heard about your difficulty from a nurse and want you to accept what we have sent. Your son gave a lot to our son. We think about him every day and we still hear his beautiful voice singing his favorite song, 'The Star Spangled Banner,' when we watch the Red Sox. You gave to us. Now it is time for our family to give in return. May God bless you."
They had enclosed $10,000 ... Not that it matters, but the people from Connecticut are white while the parents who lost their nine-year-old boy are black. And in their common voyage, there might be an American verdict we can admire.
But the verdict Barnicle received from his editors was guilty—of writing a bogus story. The information couldn't be substantiated. Barnicle was fired, though he maintained that the hospital's nurse had told him the tale. If that's the case, Barnicle pinned his entire column on a single secondhand source and then embellished that shaky information with bogus, but colorful details to spruce up an otherwise empty and saccharine story.
To make matters worse, the Globe wasn't the first organization to discover that the story had corroborating problems with it: Reader's Digest wanted to reprint the column, but editors dropped the idea after they couldn't verify the yarn (however, no one at the Digest bothered to clue in the Globe on their findings).
So newspaper reporters make mistakes just like those working for magazines, but we can expect that news editors are skeptical and vigilant enough to be able to weed out truth from fiction. Right?
Not always. In a letter to the editor published in the Charleston Daily Mail on September 10, 2003, Sgt. Shawn M. Grueser, a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq, told readers in his own words about the current situation in the tumultuous country:
I have been serving in Iraq for over five months as a soldier with Company A, 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, otherwise known as "The Rock."
We entered the country at midnight on March 26.
One thousand of my fellow soldiers and I parachuted from ten jumbo jets (C-17s) onto a cold, muddy field in Northern Iraq. The parachute operation was the Army's only combat jump in the war and opened up the northern front.
Things have changed tremendously for our battalion since those first cold, wet weeks spent in the mountain city of Bashur.
The letter described that many Iraqis purportedly welcomed American troops:
After nearly five months here, the people still come running from their homes into the 110-degree heat, waving to us as our troops drive by on daily patrols of the city. Children smile and run up to shake hands, and in their broken English, shout: "Thank you, mister."
At least it was assumed those were Grueser's own words. As encouraging as the letter sounded, the same words were repeated in other letters from other soldiers. Not only did the letter appear in the Daily Mail, but identical ones were published in at least a dozen other papers, such as the Everett Herald, Tulare Advance-Register, the Snohomish County Tribune and the Boston Globe—all under different names. A case of mass plagiarism? No, but in an effort to win the public relations war, apparently a commander in the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment took it upon himself to draft the letter and canvass the troops for signatures, resulting in soldiers putting their names on letters they didn't write. It wasn't until the Olympian noticed two identical letters with different names that the ploy came to light.
So even the letters to the editor section can be suspect—but with the vigilant eye of the camera lens, at least we can trust television news won't get the facts wrong. Right?
Wrong. A camera's eye can be as easily fooled as its human counterpart. KLAS, a television station in Las Vegas, stunned its viewers with a multi-part series about a company that allowed men to shoot paint balls at naked women. The "game," called "Hunting for Bambi," caught international attention and outraged women's groups.
But while the story made great copy for countless other media outlets, no reporter had actually investigated the company's claims. It took a small website dedicated to urban legends to debunk the story with a little common sense and observation. Even then, many in the media were reluctant to declare the scheme a hoax.
Perhaps TV reporters can be duped as easily as their print colleagues, but at least events broadcast on television news outlets, such as "town hall meetings" and the like aren't staged—right?
CNN's November 2003 "Rock the Vote" was supposed to be a debate between eight candidates vying to win the Democratic presidential nomination, with university students asking the candidates tough questions. So it came as a surprise when Alexandra Trustman, a first-year Brown University student, asked the eight presidential hopefuls: "I'm a freshman at Brown University. And going to college this year, I was confused with an important decision. My mom advised me one way, my dad the other. And so my question for you all is ... Macs or PCs?" Needless to say, many people questioned aloud whether Brown had suddenly lowered certain entrance requirements for their students. Other media outlets, such as the Eagle Tribune, made reference to the question in their coverage.
After feeling the heat for her asinine question, Trustman confessed in a column in the Brown Daily Herald, the college newspaper, that she wanted to ask the candidates a technology question, but was instructed by a CNN producer to ask the scripted question instead, to "encourage a lighthearted moment" during the debate. CNN later confirmed her account of events. Planting questions in an attempt to set the tone during a debate is manipulative: if this is supposed to be an unscripted event, then how can viewers believe what they see in the future?
If print and broadcast can't be trusted to spot hoaxes and scams, then there's always the pure and unfiltered information flowing from the Internet—with countless websites, the truth has to be easy to find. Right?
Just ask those who sympathized with "Kaycee Nicole," a teenager who kept a website chronicling her battle with cancer. People sent messages and began to feel a connection with the girl whose photo and brave words touched so many. Sadly, readers discovered that young Kaycee had succumbed to her illness in May 2001.
Events then took an even more unsettling turn after the young girl's mother refused to divulge the details of her daughter's funeral; some supporters began to look for more information, and discovered that the sob story was a hoax.
With established reporters bulldozing away at their own credibility and many Internet denizens following suit, at least we can expect that college and university journalism programs (affectionately or lazily referred to as "j-schools" by those in the business) are taking drastic steps to ensure that the new generation of chroniclers are skeptical news-gatherers who can thoroughly research and question the information they receive.
Childlike innocence can still be readily found in those who aspire to make a career in this hard-bitten profession. Student reporter Kim Na wrote a front-page story that ran in the October 3, 2002 edition of Washington State University's student newspaper, the Daily Evergreen:
The month of October is officially observed as Filipino-American History Month. On Oct. 18, 1587, the first Filipinos landed on the shores of Morro Bay, California on a Spanish galleon called the Nuestra Senora de Buena Esperanza, which translates to "The Big Ass Spanish Boat."
If accounts are to be believed, she wasn't trying her hand at ethnically offensive humor, but she wasn't trying to double-check her information, either. Na found her info on a website and assumed that if it was on the web, it had to be true, even if it sounded bizarre. The punch line was that the information on the site was a joke.
Not only did the paper have to apologize for the blunder (which outraged a number of the student body at Washington State), but it turned out that the student reporter plagiarized her information from the following passage on Pinoylife.com:
Filipinos landed on the shores of Morro Bay, CA serving as crewmen/navigators/slaves on a Spanish galleon named the Nuestra Senora de Buena Esperanza, which loosely translates to "The Big Ass Spanish Boat."
Didn't Evergreen editors question Na's unique translation? Even the most linguistically ignorant of us can see that "senora" means "lady" and "buena" means "good," but somehow those words didn't appear anywhere in the translation (for those who are clueless, the phrase means "Our Lady of Good Hope"). Was it even remotely likely that the phrase "big ass" was in common usage in 1587? Was it that hard to get a Spanish-English dictionary (online or in print) to double-check five little words? One editor did question the veracity of the passage, but since Na found the information on a "legitimate-looking" website, the rest of the staff assumed it had to be true and the translation remained untouched.
The Evergreen printed a somewhat misleading retraction on October 4, 2002:
Parts of the story, including the translation above, were plagiarized from an inaccurate website.
In fact, the website wasn't inaccurate—it was a farce. The student reporter didn't just steal someone else's words, she also took a single questionable source as fact.
If these cases were the only blunders in the news media, it could be argued that a few errors in judgment on the part of a scattering of individuals shouldn't taint the news media's credibility. However, within the last few years, countless media outlets have been repeatedly scammed and tricked by everyone from brilliantly cunning con artists to frightened little kids. Some highlights of media professionals being duped include:
A New York Post reporter believing that two lawyers with similar names were the same person;
Several large media outlets reporting that blondes were in evolutionary peril;
A well-respected paper publishing embarrassing and intimate information in an obituary that turned out to be false;
Hundreds of media outlets telling their readers that a music group was wanted by the FBI;
A child of average intelligence being touted as a genius;
Several local outlets and one wire service reporting that human parts were found in a can of food;
Several newspapers reporting that a tombstone was equipped with an ATM machine;
Many reporters believing an ordinary family was being terrorized by an extraordinary stalker;
A decadent cult receiving prominent media coverage after it claimed it cloned a human baby;
A teenager's sob story that enemy soldiers were killing babies becoming a rallying cry for war;
A pyramid scheme huckster being portrayed as a competent businessman;
A security guard who helped victims during a bombing later being portrayed as possibly the bomber himself;
A woman dependent on painkillers being transformed into a desperate and dying crime victim, prompting hundreds of people to donate money to her.
Excerpted from DON'T BELIEVE IT! by Alexandra Kitty. Copyright © 2005 Alexandra Kitty. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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