US reporters on the make who make it up

Mary Dejevsky on the rash of fabricated stories sullying American journalism
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS becoming almost a habit - an embarrassing journalistic addiction. Patricia Smith, an award-winning columnist on the respected Boston Globe, is just the latest leading journalist to be forced to resign after admitting inventing individuals and quotations in her writing. "Prize-winning" and "fake" are in danger of becoming synonymous.

Ms Smith, who is 42 and black, had worked at the paper since 1990 and written her twice-weekly Metro column on life in the inner city since 1994. In a farewell "Note of apology", written in lieu of her column for Friday's paper, Ms Smith said: "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 ... As anyone who's ever touched a newspaper knows, that's one of the cardinal sins of journalism: Thou shalt not fabricate. No exceptions. No excuses."

Ms Smith in fact offered a whole list of excuses: she did not come up through the conventional journalism school - she started as a clerk- typist at the Chicago Daily News in her home city. "To make up for the fact that I didn't get that 'correct' start in journalism, I set out to be 10 times as good by doing 10 times as much. I was fuelled by a heady mixture of naivete, ambition, and an almost insane love for the powers of language..." she wrote.

Last week, after what was described by the Globe as a "routine editorial check", Ms Smith was summoned to the managing editor and her resignation was "requested and received". Among the figures she admitted to inventing was a woman dying of cancer, who said she would give anything to get hold of a new drug that had been successfully tested on mice. "Rub it on my skin, pop it to me in a pill, shoot me up with it ... Hell, if I could get my hands on it, I'd swallow the mouse ..."

It emerged that this was the second time Ms Smith had been rumbled for fabrication. A decade ago, at the Chicago Sun-Times, she was found to have reported on a concert that she did not attend, having obtained the reviewer's position on the basis of supposedly overheard comments (that people were not reading the paper because it didn't review pop concerts) which she also invented. On that occasion, she was let off with a warning.

Foes of "affirmative action", the policy of preferential recruitment for ethnic minorities, would argue that her colour afforded a measure of protection. At that time, media organisations were desperate to employ and promote black writers - to meet quotas and banish a view of the media as a white elite. This was one factor cited in the case of Janet Cooke, a black reporter for the Washington Post who was fired after admitting she had invented the torments of a young black criminal in articles for which she won the US's highest journalistic accolade, a Pulitzer prize.

Now, with affirmative action being dismantled all over the US, times are harsher. In the past three weeks, however, evidence has emerged to suggest that fabrication in US journalism has far less to do with any relaxing of standards associated with affirmative action than with individual human weakness and pressure in the US for a particular type of journalism: people-based, quotation-based reporting and comment designed to solicit a "Wow!" from readers.

This is the explanation of many commentators who have sought to explain the antics of Stephen Glass, a 27-year-old white feature-writer under contract to New Republic magazine, who was dismissed last month after being found to have fabricated attention-grabbing characters including teenager computer hackers and White House trainees discussing their sex lives. He also fabricated notes and an Internet website for the benefit of the magazine's fact-checking department (of which he was formerly a member).

The editors of both the Boston Globe and the New Republic have apologised profusely. The Globe's editor, Matthew Storin, was determined to put a good gloss on things. He said the paper's handling of what he called a tragedy "speaks well for the institution".