In America, the truth is sacrosanct - well, almost

Celebrity puffs, made-up stories, poorly-sourced speculation masqueradi ng as investigative reporting ... all is not well in the land that brought us the Watergate revelations. Paul McCann on the US media in crisis
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The Independent Online
The purity of American journalism is under assault yet again after the revelation that a hot young writer for the conservative weekly magazine New Republic made up a story because he was under pressure to produce a lot of copy.

Stephen Glass, 25, one of a cadre of young freelancers who have made an impact on the worthy world of American news magazines, was sacked for an article about teenage computer hackers, which Glass has admitted he made up out of thin air. He even created a fake voice-mail recording from a fictitious company and set up a phoney corporate web site on the Internet to back up his story.

The scandal comes two weeks after the furore surrounding the Vanity Fair journalist Lynn Hirschberg, who was alleged to have given copy approval to the sit-com star Jerry Seinfeld in order to secure a profile interview for the May issue. The controversy began when a fax from Seinfeld arrived at Vanity Fair's offices outlining changes he wanted made to the piece.

Such cases have undermined the lofty pretensions of American print journalism which, post-Watergate, still considers itself a sacrosanct part of American democracy.

The rest of American journalism is widely thought to be in crisis. Television news has largely abandoned serious reporting in favour of celebrity stories and immediate pictures from helicopter-borne cameras.

Earlier this year the Monica Lewinsky affair revealed the country's newspapers to be only too willing to run poorly sourced leaks and speculation in order to keep a big story running.

Now the weekly magazines, which are bigger players in America because of the lack of national newspapers, are in the firing line: accused of putting hot stories ahead of factual reporting.

The blame for the Glass episode is being put on the trend for Washington- based magazines to hire hip young things that can bring "attitude" and "buzz" to otherwise dull titles. There is a group of twentysomething writers who have skipped the minor leagues of the American regional press to become players in Washington on magazines like George - John Kennedy Jr's magazine - Harper's and New Republic.

"Journalism didn't used to appeal to people who wanted to become famous," Charlie Peters, editor of Washington Monthly, told the International Herald Tribune. "Now you've got people drawn to Washington who used to be drawn exclusively to New York or LA - Washington journalism has become another path to becoming famous."

By becoming hits on the worthy Washington magazine circuit, writers like Glass can get commissions from the better-paying New York and LA magazines, such as Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. While the Washington worthies pay perhaps $30,000 a year, the New York and LA glossies will pay as much as $20,000 for one long article.

"Everyone in journalism wants to make as much money as the lawyers and various other people they write about," said Rich Blow, Washington editor of George.

For their part, reporters on the news magazines claim that they are under increasing pressure to turn in only "big bang" pieces that either take down major players in politics, showbusiness and industry, or at least get great access to big hitters.

However some see the Vanity Fair and Glass episodes as just another example of American journalism's neurotic worry that standards are slipping. Instead, says Jacob Weisberg, a former New Republic writer, it is the timeless tale of the ambitious cutting corners to get ahead.

Washington journalism circles still haven't forgotten or forgiven the Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a made-up story. Cooke's admission that she had made up a an eight- year-old heroin addict called Jimmy took some of the shine off of the Post's post-Watergate glory and the newspaper handed the Pulitzer back.

Most likely is that Glass suffered, like all jobbing journalists, from the freelancer's fear: the work running out. Freelance journalists the world over are notoriously bad at saying no to any commission, and will load themselves down with work because they don't know what's coming in the future.

Only for the unfortunate Glass is the future certain, and sadly, empty of commissions.